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Peripatetic McCain takes campaign abroad

Credits travels with shaping his worldview

Senator John McCain of Arizona, with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, in Cartegena, Colombia, yesterday. Senator John McCain of Arizona, with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, in Cartegena, Colombia, yesterday. (FERNANDO VERGARA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / July 3, 2008

CARTAGENA, Colombia - John McCain replaced his old JetBlue Embraer 170 with a new plane this week - recognizable by the candidate's name on its white body, alongside enough empty space for a "Crist" or maybe even a tightly kerned "Huckabee" - so that he could redesign its interior to emulate the setup of his "Straight Talk Express" bus.

The new Boeing 737 has one other crucial advantage as McCain works to customize his candidacy: It made Tuesday's trip from Indianapolis to Cartagena, Colombia, without a stop to refuel.

McCain, who departed Cartagena yesterday for Mexico City, is on his third trip abroad since becoming his party's presumptive nominee in March. It is a presidential-style globetrotting streak, and McCain seems to leave home for the same reason many heads of state do: to remind voters they belong on the world stage, and to turn the conversation away from less cheerful subjects.

"In McCain's case, it's clear his election hinges on what people are thinking about," said Richard Ellis, a Willamette University historian and author of a new book, "Presidential Travel."

"If people are thinking about international relations, then McCain benefits. If people are thinking about the domestic scene, and particularly the economy, Obama benefits."

McCain - who in March traveled to Iraq, Israel, Jordan, France, and the United Kingdom, and two weeks ago made a day trip to Ottawa - has tried to find an issue in the fact that his opponent has been a relative homebody of late. McCain has repeatedly invited Barack Obama to join him on an expedition to Iraq, where, according to a clock posted prominently on the Republican National Committee's webpage, the presumptive Democratic nominee has not set foot in 907 days.

While rejecting McCain's entreaty, Obama recently announced that he will make a campaign trip this month to Israel, Jordan, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and will also visit Afghanistan and Iraq, as part of a congressional delegation.

While incumbents seeking reelection have learned the benefits of a well-timed foreign trip - Richard Nixon's famous journey to China boosted his popularity during the 1972 campaign - few candidates have looked abroad for electioneering itineraries. When George Wallace, running in 1968 as the American Independent Party's candidate, wanted to rid himself of a distracting running mate, Curtis LeMay, he dispatched him to Vietnam on a "fact-finding mission" just weeks before the election.

"Travel abroad is always a double-edged sword," Ellis said. "On one hand it sends signals that you are presidential - you get to appear with world leaders. But it can also be seen to be that you're ignoring problems at home and not focused on American people."

McCain has long been the peripatetic sort. He has visited all seven continents. When he was the Navy's liaison to the US Senate, one of his primary responsibilities was chaperoning legislators on official trips. Since 2000, when McCain first ran for president, he has joined 36 congressional delegations abroad, visiting 40 countries.

McCain often credits those expeditions for shaping his policy views.

"I've traveled around the globe - usually at your expense," he tells voters who ask about his interest in global warming, as a way of explaining that he has witnessed the effects of climate change in places like Antarctica and Norway. A trip to Iraq last summer, McCain has said, helped to harden his political commitment to the Bush administration's war policy.

"He likes to see things firsthand, rather than just see or hear about them," said Jay Smith, a Republican consultant who advised McCain for most of his political career.

Known for prickly relationships with some of his peers, McCain explains some of his deepest Senate friendships by citing their travels together. McCain's personal affinity for Hillary Clinton over Obama grew out of time abroad, including one voyage to Estonia, where the two drank from the same bottle of vodka (an experience that McCain insists was later misrepresented as a "drinking contest").

McCain strategist Charlie Black said of the wanderlust: "He's not really doing anything different than he's done every year in Congress. This is who McCain is, and he's always done this."

Yet in a campaign season, when statesmanship and politicking blend, such travel carries a new set of problems: Democrats and independent watchdogs have alleged that McCain has used federal resources and foreign nationals to organize campaign events, including fund-raisers in London and Ottawa.

"The irony is that while Senator McCain has tried to use trips abroad to highlight what he perceives as his strengths, his pattern of impropriety has instead highlighted his willingness to hold himself above the law," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera.

In February, when aides concluded that McCain would have to cancel a trip to the Wehrkunde security conference in Munich, an annual ritual for him since his Navy days, to campaign in Virginia before that state's primary, they feared giving their boss the news.

This week, McCain's restlessness won out.

"This is three days we won't be campaigning in target states, but the critical calculation is driven by a single factor," Black said. "McCain says, 'I want to go.' "

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