McCain, Obama Head Overseas

The campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama say the two presidential candidates are traveling abroad this summer. Their trips are extremely unusual. Since 1992, no candidate who is not a sitting president has traveled overseas during a campaign.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. As if 50 states weren't enough, the presidential candidates are traveling abroad. Today, John McCain departed on a trip to Colombia and Mexico to talk trade, immigration and drug enforcement. Previously this election season, he's been to Paris and London and Israel - also Jordon, Iraq and Canada.

Obama's campaign, meanwhile, has announced that he will visit Israel, Jordan, Germany, France and Britain, though no dates have been announced. The campaign is also planning stops at some point and amid great secrecy in Iraq and Afghanistan. So with all this foreign travel, what's really in it for the candidate?

NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now to talk about the travels of the candidates - apparently, a pretty rare thing in American presidential history, Don, at least recently.

DON GONYEA: It is, indeed. I mean we can just go back to 1992, for example. And since that election - which was George H.W. Bush versus Bill Clinton - no candidate who wasn't a sitting president heading off to summits and things like that has, in the year of the election, traveled overseas. So what we're seeing is extremely unusual - unusual that it's happening at all, let alone how much of it we're seeing.

SIEGEL: Well, Barack Obama confirmed a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan this weekend. And that came after he was taunted by John McCain for not going to Iraq in a long time. Here's what McCain said this past May.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I certainly was just a short time ago glad to hear that Senator Obama is now, quote, "considering a trip to Iraq." It's long overdue. It's been 871 days since he was there.

SIEGEL: What do you think, Don? Did John McCain force Barack Obama to plan a trip to Iraq?

GONYEA: The challenge was laid down. The Obama campaign would never acknowledge that their hand was forced here. And if we can update John McCain, he said it had been 871 days, well…

SIEGEL: Back in May, that was.

GONYEA: …actually, it's now been 905 days. We know that because GOP.com has a handy little counter ticking off the days, hours, minutes and seconds.

SIEGEL: Well, what are the perceived benefits of all this travel abroad? First for Obama, what would he stand to gain by going overseas?

GONYEA: Simply put: stature. The one thing that McCain campaign tries to hang on Barack Obama is that he just does not have the kind of experience - not only that John McCain has, but that an American president should have, that he had time in the Illinois State Senate, that he's had less than a full term in the United States Senate, that he just doesn't have the experience.

What Barack Obama gets out of this is a chance to be seen on the stage with foreign leaders, leaders of Germany, leaders of France, leaders of the U.K., important allies. And, by going to Iraq, obviously, he is meeting with soldiers firsthand, hearing stories of what's happening on the ground and meeting with the generals. Those pictures can all be very helpful to him.

SIEGEL: Apart from the fact that a day overseas is a day he's not campaigning here in the States, is there any downside risk to make on these trips?

GONYEA: You don't want to have a gaff of some kind. You don't want to make a slip or a mistake and perhaps reveal that you don't have, you know, the experience, playing into the McCain campaign's hands. So he does have to be careful. The other thing about Senator Obama, he is adored overseas. And he has to be careful not to have that adulation be too great, lest it send a signal to Middle America that, hey, this is the guy that Europe wants - not necessarily a good thing.

SIEGEL: Now John McCain's trip to Colombia - what does he stand to gain by going there? And what can he say and what can't he say to his hosts when he's there as a candidate?

GONYEA: He can't make policy, but he can talk about how important the issues are, and they are talking about trade. It gives him a chance to highlight the differences between himself and Senator Obama on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Senator Obama opposes. Senator McCain is for it. They're also talking about immigration and drug trafficking and things like that. And it also sends a message to Hispanic voters in the U.S. that he cares about this part of the world.

SIEGEL: Is McCain going speak Spanish when he's there?

GONYEA: We'll see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: NPR's Don Gonyea. Thank you very much.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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