Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama travels to the Middle East and Europe next week as he seeks to bolster his foreign policy and national security credentials with U.S. voters. Obama is also expected to visit Iraq and Afghanistan soon. Obama's Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, is already well known overseas, and Obama's trip amounts to an introductory international tour of sorts for a man who could become president next January. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
Senator Obama will head first to Jordan and Israel, followed by stops in Germany, France and Britain.
Obama supporters hope his trip will bolster the contention that he is ready to lead U.S. foreign policy and be commander in chief of the military.
Public opinion polls give Republican John McCain the edge in those areas at the moment, and Obama has spent a lot of time recently talking about foreign policy and national security issues as he campaigns around the country.
"Instead of alienating ourselves from the world, I want America, once again, to lead," he said. "As president, I intend to pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy, one that recognizes that we have interests beyond Baghdad."
Obama has pledged to withdraw most U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. He has also vowed to send more troops to Afghanistan to bolster the war effort there.
Senator McCain opposes a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq and accuses Senator Obama of ignoring the success of the Bush administration's military surge strategy.
McCain is quick to emphasize his own experience in both the military and Congress to highlight Obama's relatively short tenure as a first term U.S. senator from Illinois.
"In wartime, judgment and experience matter," he said. "They matter. In a time of war, the commander-in-chief does not get a learning curve. If I have that privilege [of being President], I will bring to the job many years of military and political experience, experience that gave me the judgment necessary to make the right call in Iraq a year and a half ago."
Political experts say Obama's trip is essential for two reasons. First, it provides Obama an opportunity to demonstrate his foreign policy expertise to American voters, an area that polls suggest he needs to improve.
Second, it will allow Obama to open a dialogue with foreign leaders, as he makes his first appearance on the international stage as a potential president.
Stephen Hess is a political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"In the case of particularly Senator Obama, who is very new on the political scene, it, I think, was incumbent on him to at least touch base in many parts of the world, parts of the world in which he may not have spent any time," he explained.
Public opinion polls show more Americans believe that John McCain is ready to be commander-in-chief than Barack Obama.
But McCain is facing a major challenge of his own with regard to the domestic economy, which voters now regard as the number one issue in the campaign.
Polls show the public believes Obama would do a better job than McCain in trying to turn the economy around.
Democratic pollster Doug Schoen says that is one reason why Obama continues to lead McCain in public opinion polls.
"What Americans want in a president is somebody who can provide new direction and new leadership for the country," he said. "They see the economy in a seriously deteriorating state. They are concerned about our position overseas and they want new and fresh leadership."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says Obama has the advantage of being a Democrat in what should be a good year for Democratic candidates.
But Sabato says both Obama and McCain have weaknesses they need to address, and that is one reason Obama is traveling overseas.
"The minuses for Obama, I think, no question race and inexperience," he explained. "Those are the two big minuses. For McCain, his great advantage is his biography and his experience. He is a reassuring figure. The minuses for McCain, you can start with President Bush and you can end with President Bush."
Recent polls give Obama a lead of anywhere from two to nine points over McCain. Pollster Doug Schoen says he expects a close result on November 4.
"Well, it is a close election. It is within five points now, and I think that John McCain, certainly while he is behind, has a real fighting chance to win the election," he noted.
The next major opportunities for both candidates to win over voters will come at the national party conventions where Obama and McCain will be officially nominated. The Democrats meet the last week of August in Denver, while the Republicans will gather the following week in Minneapolis-St. Paul.