By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008
PARIS -- Standing along the edge of the Gaza Strip and flanked by a hero of the Israeli military, Sen. John McCain last week invoked the tough rhetoric of President Bush, warning of Iranian influence in the Middle East and cautioning against negotiations with terrorists.
A day later, standing outside London's 10 Downing Street, McCain found himself arguing against his president as he eagerly recounted for reporters his lengthy conversation with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the need for worldwide action to prevent global warming.
Throughout a week-long trip that took him to more than a dozen meetings with leaders in five countries, McCain walked a fine line on Iraq and other issues as the all-but-certain Republican nominee confronted perhaps the central dilemma of his presidential campaign -- the question of what role Bush and the legacy of the past seven years will play in his campaign for the White House.
At home, the answer may determine how well McCain succeeds in keeping his Republican base happy while also attracting the independents and Democrats he will need to win in November. And, win or lose, it will shape his image abroad, where a debate is already raging over whether a McCain presidency would be a de facto third term for the embattled incumbent.
In every city, foreign leaders and journalists attempted to reconcile what they deemed the two sides to McCain: his bellicose rhetoric on Iran and North Korea -- which is more aggressive than Bush's -- and his desire to heal the rift with Europe's leaders by closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending what he regards to be the use of torture by American forces and reducing pollution.
Europeans "see him as a trusted hand, knowledgeable," said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has advised Democratic candidate Barack Obama on foreign policy. "But I think they are a bit worried about him."
Gordon said many Europeans were stunned when U.S. voters reelected Bush in 2004 despite the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. "If we now, after all this, elect someone who agrees with the Iraq policy and is perhaps more hawkish on Iran, they will be surprised," he said.
McCain repeatedly insisted last week that his government-funded trip was not a campaign stunt aimed at voters. Rather, he said, it was a fact-finding mission similar to trips abroad taken regularly by members of Congress in both parties.
"I'm here assessing the situation," McCain barked at an Israeli reporter in the border town of Sderot near Gaza, after flying over Israel with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "It would not be frankly appropriate for me to talk about what I would do as president."
But the trip was by no means exclusively an information-gathering exercise for McCain.
He paused for a fundraiser with about 100 wealthy American expatriates living in London, who gathered at the ancestral home of Princess Diana and dined on duck salad and ice cream flamb¿. (His aides said the campaign reimbursed the government $3,000 for travel because of the political nature of the fundraiser.) McCain also gave numerous interviews to U.S. television network correspondents who followed him across the continent and to local newspapers in each country, which touted exclusives on their front pages. And he was hardly treated like a member of Congress by world leaders now eyeing him as a potential equal.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy led McCain into the ¿lys¿e Palace past a throng of cameras, where the pair sipped cappuccino around a large table set with grapes. In Israel, he walked past Chagall stained-glass windows to meet with President Shimon Peres at his ceremonial home. In London, protocol dictated the absence of a red carpet at 10 Downing, but there was a photo op in the White Drawing Room.
McCain's political advisers say those images were a valuable reminder to voters of a key asset. "This trip has shown the world Senator McCain's foreign policy credentials and highlighted the depth of his knowledge on international affairs," Rick Davis, his campaign manager, wrote in a memo to supporters.
But there were missteps as well. By incorrectly saying that Iran was training al-Qaeda insurgents rather than Shiite extremists, McCain sparked days of headlines questioning that depth of knowledge he so often boasts of on the campaign trail.
And at the Western Wall in Israel, overzealous photographers sparked a near-riot with police officers, overshadowing McCain's visit to the holy site.
"Was it a good trip? Yeah, it was good" was how one of McCain's senior advisers summed up the journey as the senator from Arizona headed to London for a few days of downtime with his wife, Cindy. "The impression that came back to the American people was someone who was deeply comfortable there in a way that showed he's ready to be president."
McCain's partners on the trip were his two closest allies in the Senate, Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who now describes his political affiliation as "independent Democrat," and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). In an interview as he traveled by train between Paris and London, Graham said McCain's long-held position on Iraq demonstrates his independence from Bush. While embracing Bush's "surge" policy in Iraq, McCain has never shied from saying that the administration bungled the planning and preparation for the conflict.
"When he thought it was going badly, he was pushing back against the administration. When he thought the policy was going right, he was right with him," Graham said. "The idea that John is an extension of another politician will fail miserably."
Democrats are already trying to morph McCain into Bush, counting on the president's sagging poll numbers and the unpopular war in Iraq to drag McCain down, especially among independents.
In a biting Internet ad that seems a foreshadowing of attacks to come, the Democratic National Committee mocked McCain as nothing more than a clone of Bush. "Why is this man so happy?" the ad asks, showing a picture of a laughing Bush. "Because he found someone to promise a Third Bush Term."
Democrats also hammered McCain for turning a policy trip into a political one and called on him to reimburse the government for the tens of thousands of dollars it would have cost to charter a plane for the exercise. At a news conference at the ¿lys¿e Palace, one reporter asked whether the trip had been a "taxpayer rip-off."
All three senators became indignant. "I'm proud to have taken this trip," McCain declared. "I'm proud to have built up the relationships I have with the president of France and with other leaders."
Lieberman called McCain's willingness to travel the world "one of his great attributes." And Graham noted that McCain had been to Iraq eight times since the war began. "We know the differences between Iraq this year and Iraq last year. These trips have been unbelievably valuable," he said.
And yet, throughout the week there were telltale signs of the presidential campaign.
At the Western Wall, a gray-haired man in the flowing garb of a rabbi repeatedly stood on a stool and yelled: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John McCain, the next president of the United States of America."
And when McCain's motorcade pulled up in front of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, a lone American tourist yelled out, "Mac is back!"