It will be a few weeks before anyone can accurately measure the political impact of Barack Obama's trip to Southwest Asia, the Middle East and Europe but it is without a doubt the most important campaign swing he's made in months and almost certain to help him boost his standing with Americans who still do not regard him as highly on defense and foreign affairs as they do John McCain. Fixing that imbalance and polls show he trails McCain by margins of as much as two to one when voters are asked who they trust more as a potential commander-in-chief was what the trip was all about, and the campaign used all the tools of a state visit to showcase their man as a potential leader of the free world.
Moving at a high speed, chased by network anchors and doling out interviews that kept the story humming, the trip was everything Obamaland wanted: Their man was firm, humble, measured, accessible and careful not to get into, as he told CNN Friday, "the business of second guessing our President" while overseas. It wasn't flawless his campaign got itself into a minor but unnecessary disagreement with the Pentagon on Friday about why Obama scheduled then cancelled a visit to a military hospital in Germany. But most things broke his way: Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki all but mimicked his timetable for redeployment of troops; French President Sarkozy all but endorsed him; even the prayer he left in the Western Wall had leaked before week's end. For all that, though, it will be some time before we know whether independent voters who are not yet sold on Obama, will come to see this campaign swing as a reassuring part of the puzzle.
By comparison, the McCain campaign suffered through one of the rockiest weeks recently endured by a presidential candidate. One McCain advser told me on Thursday that the Arlington headquarters had been braced for a rough week. "We knew we were going to lose the week two to one," he said. "Instead we lost it 30 to one." They missed some opportunities early on, complained too loudly about press bias toward Obama, and then suffered from some notably weak stage management. I'm not sure why anyone in McCainland thought a photo opportunity with Bush 41 was a good idea. Yes, he's far more popular than his son, and he displayed his usual charm during the brief press conference the two men had at the family seaside compound. But one of McCain's biggest hurdles in the race is the perception that his election would mean a third Bush term. Given that, is a pilgrimmage to Kennebunkport the best way to dispel the notion?
Then, when a hurricane blew away McCain's plans to visit an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, his campaign flew on to Ohio while Buckeye State Republicans scrambled to come up with events to fill the suddenly empty schedule. Going to the German sausage restaurant while Obama was in Berlin probably endeared him to a lot of voters in the central Ohio, a pivotal region in a key swing state where Schmidt's bratwurst are a point of local culinary pride. But the picture of him emerging from the joint with almost nothing to say while Obama was talking to 200,000 in the Tiergarten might have had a shrinking effect on McCain's rep elsewhere. It was after those three, horrible, no good, rotten days that one Republican said that he wondered whether Steve Schmidt, who took control at McCain central about a month ago, was really up to the task.
And yet McCain too bounced back on Friday with a notably sharp speech about Obama's confusing statements about the surge while in Iraq. McCain has a point about the surge: even Obama admits things are calmer and less violent in Iraq but would not acknowledge that the surge had anything to do wit it. McCain called that The Audacity of Hopelessness and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this line of attack. But McCain's focus on Iraq has its weaknesses, too: whatever they may think about the surge, Americans, the polls tell us, made up their minds about the wisdom of the overall adventure long ago and want to move on. McCain is talking about a war that most Americans have put in their rear view mirror.
Still, he could take great comfort from the fact that he is still only a few points behind the Illinois Phenomenon with 100 days to go in the campaign. That fact is the central conversation piece among party professionals on both sides and a real worry for the Obama camp. A Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama's lead shrinking in a handful of battle ground states over the last month; other surveys showed that more than 40% do not relate to Obama's background. Independent voters the same who worry about his inexperience overseas are still very much up for grabs. "I am pleasantly surprised," McCain said on Friday, "that we are as close as we are... in the polls."
Asked by the Columbus Dispatch if he agreed with columnist David Broder's assessment that he was living through "a cruel month," McCain said, "We put one foot ahead of the other."