WASHINGTON – Like no other candidate, John McCain has linked his campaign for president to an unpopular war – and to a lifelong focus on foreign issues that many voters ignore.
McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, became famous as a Vietnam prisoner of war and has spent his long Senate career traveling to more foreign countries than most people could even name.
He makes his eighth trip to Iraq today, a visit sure to get a lot of attention. His weeklong overseas trip also includes Israel, Britain and France – all countries where he’s made many visits.
A defiant supporter of the 2003 invasion and President Bush’s troop increase last year, McCain is likely to focus in Iraq on the drop in sectarian violence and U.S. and civilian casualties since last summer.
His own situation has changed strikingly, too, since then. Now he’s the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting.
Last April, as McCain’s chances for winning the nomination seemed uncertain, the four-term Arizona senator toured a Baghdad marketplace, hailing the progress even though he was protected by three Black Hawk helicopters, two Apache gunships and 100 U.S. troops.
He was widely ridiculed as being out of touch.
As he returns, a new Pentagon study shows sectarian violence down 90 percent and U.S. and civilian casualties down 70 percent since July.
In December, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they opposed the war, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll. Opinions on the war have remained basically steady.
However, a poll released Friday by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal said about 35 percent of those questioned think McCain has the right approach for Iraq, compared with 30 percent for Hillary Rodham Clinton and 27 percent for Barack Obama.
McCain calls the fight against Islamic extremism the “transcendent challenge of the 21st century.”
As for any effect his Iraq war stance might have on his candidacy, he said last week in New Hampshire, “I’ve made it abundantly clear that I would much rather lose a campaign than a war.”
The one may be tied to the other.
Says Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution: “I have a hard time seeing how he wins if Iraq falls apart between now and November, and I have a hard time seeing how the Democrats use Iraq against him over that time if things continue to improve.”
McCain has a lengthy foreign policy and military résumé.
McCain’s father, a naval officer, was stationed in the Canal Zone when McCain was born. A graduate of the Naval Academy, McCain, now 71, flew in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war for more than five years. In the Senate, he is the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
He has visited every region of the world, including Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, and frequently meets with leaders of the countries to which he’s traveled, both when he visits their countries and when they visit the United States.
McCain has been across the world so many times that aides named off the tops of their heads some 69 countries he’s visited – including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Laos and Palau – and warned the list was far from exhausted.
Aides say he keeps up to speed on the politics and policies of many nations – a passion he regularly displays to reporters traveling with him – and understands the long-term ramifications of having well-established personal relationships with foreign leaders. He makes it a point to meet with up-and-comers, too. Aides say he met Angela Merkel at a Munich conference several years ago before she became German chancellor.
This week, McCain is expected to meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the first time and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for the third time.
McCain has relationships with every leader in Israel he plans to see, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
The senator last met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last Thanksgiving, and he’s also gotten to know other members of the Iraqi government.
He returns with two of his chief presidential supporters, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but he insists it is a fact-finding venture, not a campaign photo opportunity. “There’s nothing like being on the ground,” he said.