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Georgia crisis helps McCain for now

A key question: Will the conflict divert voters' attention from the economy this fall?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2008

Democrat Barack Obama still maintains an average lead of 4 to 5 percentage points in polls overall.

Alex Brandon/AP

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The crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia seems made to order for John McCain. It has allowed the likely Republican presidential nominee to show his foreign-policy chops and talk tough. Since last Friday, when Russia invaded its Caucasian neighbor, Senator McCain has spoken to his old friend "Misha" Saakashvili several times, pointedly referring to the Georgian president by his nickname.

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His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, reacted initially by calling for restraint on both sides (echoing the White House) and then toughened his rhetoric in subsequent days. At this point, the dueling senators' positions on the matter are nearly identical: continue condemning the Russian aggression in no uncertain terms and question the future of Russian involvement in multilateral organizations such as the G-8 economic group and the World Trade Organization, which Russia aspires to join.

For now, it's a winning issue for McCain. The Russian-Georgian conflict's impact on the presidential race could depend on whether it is a one-week story or a three-month story.

"If we move to something resembling an uneasy status quo ante, then this will fade as an issue," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It will have been something that got onto the radar of Americans but not right in front of them. If that's the case, I would probably still argue that it's of some marginal benefit for McCain."

The reason, he says, is not because of Obama's reaction but more because it reminds people that "we live in a world filled with tough customers who don't always act in our interest, and it reminds Americans of the need to have a tough customer in our White House."

A Rasmussen poll, taken Aug. 11, shows 51 percent of likely voters believe that McCain is better equipped than Senator Obama to handle a similar crisis in the future, and 36 percent favor Obama. Still, the Georgia crisis has not altered the bottom line in the McCain-Obama presidential race: Obama continues to hold the steady 4- to 5-point average lead in major polls he has held all summer.

McCain is trying to make hay while he has the media spotlight, speaking out frequently and forcefully on the situation. He uttered the most memorable sound bite of the crisis, so far, when he said, "We are all Georgians." On Thursday, he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal under that title, reminding readers that he had traveled two years ago to South Ossetia – the secessionist province of Georgia that sparked the crisis – and instructing Americans that even though this may appear to be an obscure part of the world, "History is often made in remote, obscure places."