McCain struggles to make himself heard above chorus of approval for rival

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The Independent US

On a helicopter tour over Baghdad, a relaxed Barack Obama was flashing his famous smile at the US commander David Petraeus, with whom he has sparred in the past. At about the same time, some 8,000 miles away, his presidential rival John McCain looked faintly ridiculous riding a golf buggy with George Bush Snr near the former president's summer home in Maine.

Asked about the intense spotlight on his rival, McCain shrugged. "It is what it is." The father of the current, deeply unpopular, president revealed he too was "a little jealous" of the fuss being made over Mr Obama.

About the time the Illinois senator and an entourage of news anchors who rarely leave their chairs were flying by "Obama One" from Baghdad to Amman, Mr McCain's plane was touching down on the Wiggins Airways Tarmac in New Hampshire for another campaign event. The Republican contender was met by a solitary reporter and a photographer.

In the election narrative favoured by US commentators, the Achilles heel of the Democrat candidate is his lack of foreign policy experience. Opponents are watching and waiting for the slightest misstep. The McCain campaign is ready to pounce while complaining bitterly about the lavish attention the trip is receiving while only at its mid-way point. McCain's handlers have been sending out emails, almost by the hour, attacking Mr Obama's positions especially on Iraq.

But Mr Obama has proven himself a close scholar of the intricacies of Afghan, Iraqi and Middle Eastern politics. Faced with a barrage of questions at a press conference in Amman yesterday, he effortlessly batted them away. He has yet to put a foot wrong on a trip which aims to establish his credentials as a US leader in time of war.

Indeed, so far all the mistakes have been on Mr McCain's side and his campaign is now boiling with frustration. His reputation as a safe pair of hands on foreign policy took a knock when he referred to US troops securing the "Iran-Pakistan border" during an interview on ABC's Good Morning America.

Though he is not the first politician to get into a muddle about geography, the Arizona senator's momentary slip made him look like a punch-drunk boxer swiping at his opponent.

More damaging to his reputation on national security was the rejection slip he received from the New York Times following his submission of an article attacking his rival's plan for withdrawing US forces from Iraq in 16 months. Relations between the liberal newspaper and Mr McCain are not the best, since it published a widely discredited investigation into an allegedly improper relationship between the candidate and a female lobbyist. This time America's paper of record asked Mr McCain to redraft the article, requesting revisions to "articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq" and to lay out "a clear plan for achieving victory". It also asked for details of his Afghanistan strategy.

The campaign rebuffed the request with a spokesman saying: "John McCain believes victory in Iraq must be based on conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables."

Mr Obama, meanwhile, has had a run of good luck. The Iraqi government bent over backwards to embrace something akin to his plan for the withdrawal of US forces. While Mr McCain lashes out at a novice who cannot be commander in chief because he "has no military experience whatsoever", nobody seems to be listening. Instead, Mr Obama's s focus on Afghanistan is adding to the impression that whatever he lacks in experience he makes up for in sound judgement. "The situation in Afghanistan is perilous and urgent," he said yesterday, stressing a point he has been making for months. "We must act now to reverse a deteriorating situation."

The Republican candidate's latest ruse to steal back some of the limelight was a leak suggesting he has "narrowed" down his options for a vice-presidential running mate and might make a decision soon. The naming of a vice- presidential candidate should create some badly needed excitement for Mr McCain's campaign and give him a bump in the opinion polls.

High on the list is thought to be Mitt Romney. Mr McCain seems to have overcome his intense dislike for the former Massachusetts governor, who was his former rival for the nomination.

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