McCain's, Adviser's Ties To Georgia Questioned

In York, Pa., McCain focused on the conflict beween Russia and Georgia. i i

hide captionAt a town hall meeting in York, Pa., on Monday, McCain turned serious to talk about the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
In York, Pa., McCain focused on the conflict beween Russia and Georgia.

At a town hall meeting in York, Pa., on Monday, McCain turned serious to talk about the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The Caucasus Conflict

Interactive Feature: Russia, Georgia Clash
Credit: Corey Flintoff, Alice Kreit/NPR

Republican John McCain pretty much had the presidential campaign trail to himself this week while Democrat Barack Obama vacationed in Hawaii.

For McCain, the conflict between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Russia, which ignited last week, has provided an opportunity to stress his foreign policy credentials — and turn the political focus to world affairs.

But as the week progressed, McCain began to face questions about whether he was using the crisis for political gain and about the origin of his ties to Georgia.

McCain's Controlled Reaction

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 11, McCain's campaign put out an urgent call for reporters to come to a hotel conference room for a statement.

"World history is often made in remote obscure countries," McCain said. "It is being made in Georgia today. It's the responsibility of the leading nations of the world to ensure history continues to be a record of humanity's progress toward respecting the values and security of free people."

When a reporter yelled a question, the McCain of the past would have jumped in with an answer.

But this time, McCain simply said: "This is the total of my recommendations for right now."

And so it went throughout a tightly controlled week.

McCain, who used to be known for veering off into whatever topic crossed his mind, stayed disciplined instead. It seemed like all Georgia all of the time, even if the setting didn't appear quite right.

At a rally in York, Pa., his Straight Talk Express bus wowed the audience by pulling onto the arena floor to drop off the candidate.

McCain threw in some jokes: "You know, Harry Truman once said if you want a friend in Washington, go out and buy a dog." But then he quickly told the crowd it was time to get serious.

"As you know, over the past several days we've seen that international aggression is, tragically, not a thing of the past," McCain told the audience. "We thought we put a lot of that behind us at the end of the 20th century. But now it's rearing its ugly head in the 21st ... [in] the small of nation of Georgia."

McCain's Close Ties With Georgia

Everywhere he went, McCain stressed his knowledge of Georgia. He's been there, he said — and he knows President Mikhail Saakashvili well. In fact, McCain told the crowd in Pennsylvania that he had just been on the phone with the Georgian leader.

"And he wanted me to say thank you to you," McCain said. "To give you his heartfelt thanks for the support of the American people for this tiny little democracy, far away from the United States of America."

As McCain pounded his message home, questions started to pop up. McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, it turns out, was a lobbyist working for the nation of Georgia until this year. He's one reason McCain has had that contact with the Georgians, including Saakashvili, over the past several years.

Scheunemann briefed reporters on the plight of Georgia on McCain's campaign plane. Reporters were even given maps showing red lines that represented Russian military operations.

At a news conference in Michigan Wednesday, McCain was asked about the origins of his interest in Georgia.

"All I can say is I have a long record of experience and background and knowledge vis-a-vis our relations with Russia," McCain said. "Although I was deeply disappointed in Russian behavior, I must say this is one in a long series of actions taken by Prime Minister Putin that have been of deep and abiding concern for me for a long time."

McCain said he did not think that the politics of the presidential race should intrude on America's response to the Russian invasion. But he quickly added that he hopes voters will judge how he and Obama each responded to the situation in Georgia, when they choose the next commander in chief.

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