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.
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."
McCain is also dispatching his two closest supporters in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, to Georgia to assess the situation on the ground. Senator Lieberman criticized Obama Monday at a fundraiser for McCain in New Jersey, calling Obama a "gifted young man" but "not ready to be president on Jan. 20th of 2009."
Obama, meanwhile, has been issuing statements on Georgia from his vacation spot in Hawaii and sending his foreign-policy surrogates to speak on his behalf. But as long as the economy remains issue No. 1 for voters, Obama is not likely to lose major traction in the campaign because of the flare-up in the Caucasus. Many Americans are on vacation themselves and the Olympics are filling cable and broadcast TV. In addition, the other bombshell from last Friday, former Democratic candidate John Edwards's admission of an extramarital affair, is still a hot topic in political circles.
McCain's intense focus on the Georgia situation also may not play well with voters weary of American military involvement abroad. "McCain's statement, saying 'We're all Georgians,' that's a little scary for a lot of Americans," says Tom Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of the book "American Power after the Berlin Wall. "I don't know if America wants to get involved in any more ethnic conflicts."
Some voters have been left wondering what to make of either candidate's ability to deal with crises like the one in Georgia.
"McCain, he's too erratic for me," says Hilton Turner, a retired classics professor in New Wilmington, Pa. "And Obama is a very thoughtful person, but I don't know where that leads." He says he voted for Obama in the primary, but preferred some of the other Democrats who had dropped out by then.
Jon Roe, an auto mechanic in Keene, N.H., who voted for McCain in the primary, sounds equally unsure of foreign policy under either man. "Does either of them really know what they're doing?" he asks. "I like McCain compared to Obama, but it makes me wonder: Is this the best the nation has to offer?"
One thing is clear about the US reaction: the administration is now taking heat for its initial response. President Bush was in Beijing for the Olympics and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was on vacation, when the crisis broke. On Aug. 13, the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page asserted that "US credibility is … on the line."