- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2008

LONDON | David Axelrod could not have scripted a better week for his candidate.

Sen. Barack Obama was pressured by his Republican rival to visit two war zones, and he traveled to eight countries amid fears he would make some crippling foreign-policy gaffe.

Instead, European leaders fawned over the Democratic presidential candidate, who was greeted by excited fans everywhere and attracted record crowds in Berlin. He got an added boost from key Iraqi officials and even his opponent as they embraced a timetable for troop withdrawal.

There were few errors or dust-ups over the nine-day trip as Sen. John McCain and Republican operatives back home hammered Mr. Obama for seeming to take a “premature victory lap.”

“It is hard for me to understand Senator McCain’s argument. He was telling me I was supposed to take this trip,” Mr. Obama told reporters during a press conference Saturday in front of 10 Downing Street after a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Democrat said “we had it planned” before his rival made the trip suggestion, and noted that Mr. McCain, since wrapping up his party nomination in February, has visited “every one of these countries … that I have,” and also has given speeches in Canada, Colombia and Mexico.

“It doesn’t strike me that we have done anything different than the McCain campaign has done, which is to recognize that part of the job of the next president, commander in chief is to forge effective relationships with our allies,” he said.

The Arizona senator complained in his weekly radio address about all the press attention Mr. Obama received - a week of multiple network-anchor interviews that ends with his taped “Meet the Press” appearance Sunday.

“This week, the presidential contest was a long-distance affair, with my opponent touring various continents and arriving yesterday in Paris,” Mr. McCain said, rattling off the places where he campaigned in the meantime: Maine, upstate New York, New Hampshire, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.

“With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to ‘the people of the world,’ I’m starting to feel a little left out. Maybe you are, too,” he said.

While the McCain radio address criticized Mr. Obama for being in France, Mr. McCain suggested at the same time that the French could be a model of energy independence for the United States to emulate and implicitly slammed Mr. Obama for his unease with expanding U.S. use of nuclear power.

“I wonder if he noticed while he was in France that they draw 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear energy,” he said. “Nations from Europe to Asia are expanding their use of this clean, proven and stable source of energy.”

The Saturday morning press availability and meetings were Mr. Obama’s last duties before heading back across the Atlantic after a trip filled with flattering footage that Mr. Axelrod, a chief Obama adviser, would not rule out using in some campaign commercials before the Nov. 4 election.

The British tabloids and TV stations mocked his visit - and the hundreds of thousands who attended the Berlin speech Thursday evening - as suffering from “Obamania,” but that didn’t stop them from joining in.

“Can we get a wave?” photographers shouted at the senator from Illinois as they clicked their shutters hundreds of times for the perfect shot.

A German tabloid reporter wrote an exclamation-point laden story about how her heart pounded when Mr. Obama happened to be pumping iron in her hotel gym in Berlin - something McCain operatives mocked in their daily update e-mail.

Mr. Obama - who retains a slim national lead over Mr. McCain while some battleground states are tightening - said he would not be surprised if more than a week away from the United States might spark “a little bit of a dip” in the polls.

“I am not sure that there is going to be some immediate political impact” to the trip, he said. “People are worried about gas prices and home foreclosures.”

But he said the trip was important to ensure the U.S. has strong partners abroad and “to highlight or amplify how the international situation affects our economy back home.”

“Also hopefully to give people at home, but also leaders abroad, some sense of where an Obama administration might take our foreign policy,” he said.

Before leaving London on Saturday, Mr. Obama held private meetings with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and with David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who aims to fill Mr. Brown’s shoes.

Mr. Cameron told reporters Mr. Obama could win an election in Britain: “Oh, I think he would probably beat me.”

The pool reporters present for the beginning of the private meeting to take photos heard a telling exchange between the two men.

“You need to be able to keep your head together,” Mr. Cameron said, asking if the candidate would get any rest soon.

Mr. Obama responded he’d be taking a week of vacation next month and said a former Clinton official recommended that if elected, “the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”

If you don’t do that, “you start making mistakes, or you lose the big picture,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Cameron agreed, “That is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.”

“That’s exactly right. And the truth is that we’ve got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know 10 times more than we do about the specifics of the topic, and so if what you’re trying to do is micromanage and solve everything, then you end up being a dilettante, but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you,” Mr. Obama said.

There was no time for quiet moments over the past week, as Mr. Obama and a cadre of advisers and a plane full of press hopped around countries and got little sleep.

He began the trip with a private congressional delegation to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and then held meetings with leaders in Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. At each he discussed global challenges such as international business markets, terrorism, loose nuclear weapons and climate change.

He also talked about the delicate situation in Israel, meeting with officials from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the riskiest portion of his trip, and he seemed to navigate the waters with success and without causing any controversy.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Democrat’s speech there was a “positive signal” for Europe and also joked she “wouldn’t resist” a back rub from the Democrat should he win the election, a nod to one she received from President Bush.

He won warm reviews abroad for a speech to more than 200,000 people at Berlin’s Victory Column, where he called for renewed international partnership.

An Internet-organized group aggressively questioned the intentions of the Berlin crowd, since two live bands offered entertainment before the speech, but the Obama team had not advertised any music, and the crowd remained after the music concluded to hear him speak.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy demonstrated overt affection for the Democratic candidate and said he was popular in his country.

But the week’s best development for the Obama campaign came from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told a German magazine just before the candidate’s Iraq visit that he liked the 16-month withdrawal timetable proposed by the Democrat. His office later tried to pull back from the comments, saying the translation was wrong, but newspapers obtained the audiotape and confirmed his statement was clear.

Other foreign leaders have been expressing support for a timeline, and the White House and Iraqi leaders recently agreed on a more general “time horizon” for bringing troops home.

Democrats gleefully sent reporters a Friday CNN transcript where Mr. McCain - while outlining the importance of conditions on the ground - said “I think it’s a pretty good timetable.”

He caught himself and used the administration’s term of “horizons” for withdrawal, rather than a “timetable.”

“This success is … incredibly impressive, but very fragile,” he said. “If we reverse this, by setting a date for withdrawal, all of the hard-won victory can be reversed.”

Mr. Obama said Saturday that he was “pleased” to see support from Mr. McCain and Iraqi officials for a timetable, and said it is “a good thing” Mr. McCain agrees with him that more troops are needed in Afghanistan.

“The point I have made throughout the course of this trip is that a lot of these foreign-policy issues have been seen through a prism of politics and ideology for too long,” Mr. Obama said. “Part of the reason I think you are seeing some convergence is that reality is asserting itself. And you can’t argue with facts.”

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, pushed his line that Mr. Obama has flip-flopped from opposing the surge of troops to Iraq to now saying it helped reduce violence there.

Pressed by a British reporter to weigh in with advice for Mr. Brown’s political troubles, Mr. Obama demurred and offered a glimpse of his amusement of the constant ups and downs in the campaign cycle.

“I will tell you that you’re always more popular before you’re actually in charge of things. And then, you know, once you’re responsible, then you are going to make some people unhappy, and that’s just the nature of politics,” he said with a wide grin. “Even during the course of this campaign, there have been months where I am a genius, and there are months where I am an idiot.”

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