WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama looked and sounded like a natural in the role of potential U.S. president during a carefully scripted overseas trip this week, passing a big test in the battle for the White House.
The first-term senator from Illinois smoothly executed his debut on the world stage, frustrating Republican rival John McCain and disappointing critics waiting for a telling mistake that would highlight his inexperience.
For Obama, who concludes the 7-country trip on Saturday, it was a chance to dispel doubts about his foreign policy expertise and display his credibility as a possible commander in chief.
“Obama passed the test, which was to show he can handle himself with foreign leaders and avoid a major gaffe,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
“It doesn’t transform the race and it doesn’t win him the presidency -- but failure could have cost him the presidency. Now he can move on,” he said.
Polls show Obama’s lack of experience in world affairs remains one of his biggest hurdles with voters in November’s election battle against McCain, a four-term Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war.
To dispel those concerns, Obama met with foreign leaders, carefully navigated the minefield of Israeli-Palestinian relations, visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drew a crowd of 200,000 to his speech in Berlin, Germany -- more than double the size of his biggest U.S. audience.
The trip, conducted with all the pomp of a presidential visit, produced a stream of warm images for voters back home. Obama, 46, held his first news conference on a Jordan hilltop with a sprawling view of the capital Amman behind him.
He delivered his Berlin speech to an adoring throng that reinforced his promise to begin a new era of U.S. diplomacy and restore American prestige abroad.
Obama’s supporters were happy with his performance.
“Obama was auditioning for the job of president this week, and I think he showed he is up to it,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. “It has been a big week for Senator Obama and his campaign.”
Obama set the tone early on the trip, stepping on a basketball court before a cheering crowd of U.S. troops and calmly nailing a 3-point shot.
‘BAD WEEK’ FOR REPUBLICANS
“As soon as he hit that 3-pointer, I knew it was going to be a bad week,” Republican consultant Joe Gaylord said.
“His trip had good pictures, good video, good sound bites. I have to admire their work,” said Gaylord, a McCain supporter.
Obama, who has called for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office, also benefited from news that undercut two of McCain’s prime foreign policy arguments.
Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Obama the end of 2010 was an appropriate goal for U.S. withdrawal, putting the two on a similar path. Even President George W. Bush agreed for the first time on a “time horizon” for withdrawal.
McCain, an ardent supporter of the war, opposes a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. That left him in the awkward position of bucking the elected Iraqi government -- although he said recent security gains might allow troops to leave by the end of 2010.
Bush also sent a senior U.S. diplomat to meet with Iranian and European teams over Iran’s nuclear program, along the lines of Obama’s call for direct talks with Iran. McCain has criticized Obama for his willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions.
McCain, 71, has marketed his military and foreign policy credentials in the campaign and goaded Obama into the trip by criticizing his failure to visit Iraq since a lone visit in January 2006.
But McCain’s aides fumed at the heavy media attention on Obama and struggled to compete. Weather scuttled McCain’s plan to fly to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to highlight his drilling proposals, and one cable network cut away from his New Hampshire town hall to report the rescue of an injured bear cub in California.
As Obama spoke in Berlin on Thursday, McCain had lunch in a German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
“I don’t think McCain’s counter-programming worked, but I‘m not sure there was anything they could do but hope it all goes away and pray for better times,” Gaylord said. “There are some things you can’t fight.”
(Editing by Vicki Allen)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/