Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain travels to Europe and the Middle East this week ahead -- including a stop in Iraq -- to burnish his senior statesman credentials while Democratic rivals brawl back home.
The Arizona senator, who touts his foreign affairs experience over Democratic rivals senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will lead a congressional delegation starting tomorrow to meet the leaders of Jordan, Israel, Britain and France, his campaign office said.
But off the official schedule was a trip to Iraq yesterday, the Washington Post reported on Saturday, where he will see firsthand the effects of the troop "surge" for which he has been such a fervent advocate, even as US public support for the war in Iraq has slumped further.
The delegation was to meet with US military officials and Iraq's leaders to assess the success of the surge strategy that deployed more soldiers to Iraq, the Post said.
Observers said the trip would give several heads of state a closer look at one of the three candidates battling for the White House.
"The people he's going to meet with are going to try to find out from him what he would do as president," Jim Steinberg, a dean of public affairs at the University of Texas, told the Post.
McCain, who has staked his presidential hopes on Iraq, was making the latest of several trips to the war-ravaged country where more than 3,988 US forces have been killed since the March 2003 invasion.
He stressed that the overseas trip was part of his role as the top Republican in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I do want to emphasize again that the three of us are going as members of the Armed Services Committee," McCain was quoted as saying in Saturday's New York Times. "And we will emphasize that at every stop."
Yet there were political elements to the trip that were hard to ignore.
McCain's campaign will likely use the meetings with Jordanian King Abdullah, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convey that the senator is at home on the world stage.