CHICAGO (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Barack Obama charmed the King of Jordan, won effusive praise from France’s president and captivated European citizens from Berlin to London.
During a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe, the Illinois Democrat with the unusual name and three years in the U.S. Senate even appeared to make some headway in his goal of reassuring Israelis he would be a staunch supporter of the Jewish state.
But still unclear is whether Obama helped close a gap that voters perceive in his foreign experience compared to that of Republican Sen. John McCain, his rival in the November election and a former Vietnam war hero who has long had a reputation for heft on national security matters.
And for all the adulation the 46-year-old Obama received abroad, there is also the risk that his trip could be perceived by Americans as a premature victory lap.
The tour of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain is highly unusual for U.S. presidential candidate less than four months before the election, although McCain made nearly the same trip in March and then went to Colombia and Mexico this summer.
Obama’s aides did little to hide their feeling that the trip had gone well. But they were also eager to play down expectations of a jump in U.S. polls.
“I think people got an opportunity to see how he would perform on the world stage,” said top Obama aide Robert Gibbs. “We never thought that this trip or any one thing would completely change perceptions or polls. We think it will be something that happens over the course of the campaign.”
“But we think the trip was a pretty important start,” he said.
Tracking polls from the last few days give Obama a 5 to 7 percentage point edge over McCain, not far where the poll numbers have remained for the last month.
Obama, whose fans liken him to the charismatic former President John F. Kennedy, is known for his ability to mesmerize massive American crowds with his sweeping oratory.
The Obamamania that swept through European capitals seemed just as intense, if not more so.
At Berlin’s Tiergarten Park, 200,000 people gathered to hear him speak, nearly triple the 75,000 he drew in Portland, Oregon, his biggest U.S. crowd.
The speech at points echoed Kennedy and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, but Obama opened it by remarking on his mixed-race heritage, “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.”
Obama’s background as the son of an American mother and Kenyan father and his childhood spent partly in Indonesia are a part of his attraction to some overseas who see him as someone who will take a more global view of foreign affairs.
In Berlin, Obama urged Europe to do more to help shoulder burdens like stabilizing Afghanistan, a message the Obama campaign viewed as substantive one that would help dispel impressions of the event as a kind of overseas campaign rally.
There were no formal speeches on the London and Paris legs of the trip but Obama still drew crowds along his motorcade route and in the lobby of a hotel where he was staying.
“I just hope America realizes how lucky they are,” said Saira Banu, 21, who stood with a crowd of Obama supporters as he met in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
At the Elysee Palace, French President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to Obama as an “adventure” and all but endorsed him.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, close in age to Obama and enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate’s promise to reinvigorate Middle East peace talks, not only hosted him for dinner at his palace but personally drove him to the airport.
Israelis were Obama’s toughest international audience and he spent a day meeting with an array of Israeli officials and also met with the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank.
He told Israelis wary of his call for greater engagement with Iran that he understood that their security concerns were paramount and pledged steadfast support for the Jewish state.
“Of course, everybody was excited to meet Obama,” one Israeli official said. “He’s a good-looking man with a lot of poise and he said everything we wanted to hear.”
Fuelling the unease for some Israelis — as well as some U.S. Jewish voters — is Obama’s central campaign message of change. “Unfortunately, Israel doesn’t want any change. Israel would love to see the current policies continue and, if not (President George W.) Bush, then a Bush stand-in like McCain,” the Israeli official said on condition of anonymity.
But Pinhas Amar, whose home in the Israeli border town of Sderot was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip last December, hosted both McCain and Obama but was more taken with the Democrat.
“He is a nice man. He’s charismatic. I think that Obama will win. I felt more comfortable with Obama,” Amar said.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, editing by Jackie Frank