Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin met her first-ever heads of state during a whirlwind, tour on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Palin sat down for brief talks with leaders from Afghanistan, Georgia, Colombia and Iraq in what her advisers called an effort to "build relationships." Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York Bureau that her meetings were overshadowed by controversy after she refused to answer any questions from reporters.
Palin, the running mate of Republican Senator John McCain, has been dogged by critics and Democrats for her lack of foreign policy experience. She first acquired a passport in 2007 and has traveled abroad just once.
She has been carefully shielded from the media since she was added to the Republican ticket in August. In four weeks of campaigning she has not held a single news conference and has only given two television interviews.
On Tuesday, Palin met her first head of state when she sat down with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She also met with Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe and former Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
On Wednesday she and Senator McCain met with Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, who thanked McCain for speaking out after Russia's invasion last month. Palin also held talks with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Pakistan's new president Asif Ali Zardari and was slated to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U2 singer and activist, Bono.
But at no time did Palin field questions from the press on her eetings.
For a short time, her advisers attempted to ban reporters from attending the meeting at all, saying only cameras were allowed in the room. But, after the five major television networks threatened to boycott coverage, the McCain campaign relented, allowing a single reporter and a bevy of photographers into the meetings for about 30 seconds.
Members of the press and Democrats accuse the McCain campaign of shielding Palin from the media. Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, told CNN it is time to for the vice presidential candidate to answer unscripted questions.
"If your purpose is to show that Governor Palin can hold her own during talks with major international figures, then let her hold her own," he said. "Don't exclude the press, don't keep questions from being asked, don't coddle her."
Analysts said the McCain campaign has sought to bolster Palin's image through the quick succession of meetings with the foreign leaders. A Republican Congresswoman from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, defended Palin's reticence to speak to the press. She told Fox News that she believes the Alaska governor has a better handle on international affairs than she is given credit for.
"I know that she keeps up with things and frankly I don't think it's necessary to study at an elite institution to understand some of the workings of the world," she said.
Palin's meetings come a week before her first vice presidential debate with Democratic counterpart Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a noted foreign policy expert.