The two senators auditioning for the role of commander in chief had a surprise dress rehearsal over the weekend with the sudden hostility in Georgia, and their starkly different initial performances give voters an insight into how the candidates would handle a middle-of-the-night crisis.
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain issued statements on the quickly escalating situation in Georgia within minutes of each other Friday morning. While the Democrat said "I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia" and called for "all sides" to enter talks, the Republican immediately blamed Russia as the aggressor, demanding they "immediately and unconditionally … withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory" and laying out a specific course for the United States and world leaders to take.
"They made [Mr. Obama] look like a deer caught in the headlights," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian studies at the Heritage Foundation. "The McCain campaign is way ahead of him by advocating a serious and multilayered global diplomatic response."
Praise for Mr. McCain's response also came from a respected Democratic foreign policy analyst who has been an adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"McCain certainly impresses me with the way he has handled it," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "McCain is the one who has distinguished himself here."
The Obama campaign said the senator, on his way to Hawaii for a weeklong vacation with family and friends, was working with the best available information at the time the candidate made his Friday morning statement.
"The senator's first statement was based primarily on news and staff reports — and included information from [National Security Adviser] Steve Hadley," said Obama spokesman Wendy Morigi. "At that point, we all believed that de-escalation was possible, and that's what Senator Obama urged, along with the U.S. government and our allies."
The story broke around 3 a.m. Friday, with wire reports that Russia had bombed several sites in Georgia. Minutes later, President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that his country was besieged by a "large-scale military" invasion and called for a "total mobilization" of his nation's troops.
Mr. Obama made no mention of the Russian aggression in his first reaction to the invasion, delivered to reporters at 11:32 a.m. Friday.
"I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict," the Democratic presidential candidate said in the one-paragraph statement.
"Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."
Six minutes later, Mr. McCain fired out a statement. "Today, news reports indicate that Russian military forces crossed an internationally-recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia. Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," the Republican candidate wrote.
Mr. McCain laid out several specific steps the United States should take "immediately," including:
• "Convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to call on Russia to reverse course."
• "Work with the [European Union] and the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course it has chosen."
• "Call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia's security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation."
Mr. McCain has long taken a hard line against Russia and former President Vladimir Putin, who is now the nation's prime minister. He has called for ejecting Russia from the Group of Eight, or G-8, industrial powers. While President Bush famously said he looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and got a "sense of his soul," Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, said: "When I looked at Putin's eyes I saw 3 letters — K, G and a B."
"Clearly, McCain's response and the level of detail that we see in it comes out the fact that he's had in particular a long history with Georgia and he has advisers who have been working on this issue," said Cory Welt, associate director of the Eurasian Strategy Project at Georgetown University.
"Obama's got people who know the issue very well but it's not something that has been of direct interest as long a time. Undoubtedly, there is a very rapid learning curve involved as well," Mr. Welt said.
But the Obama campaign said the candidate's initial statement "reflected the situation on the ground."
"His statement was tough, calibrated," Miss Morigi said. "As the situation escalated, Senator Obamas statement reflected those changing circumstances. The fact is, Senator Obama knew this was a dangerous situation for months and had been calling for direct, high-level action by our international partners."