GOP Looks for Weakness in Obama's Overseas Trip

The Democrat scores on visuals, so Republicans plan to hit him on substance.

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Despite media raves about Barack Obama's weeklong trip to the Mideast and Europe, Republican strategists say his nation-hopping exposed major vulnerabilities that they hope to exploit in the fall.

GOP strategists, including advisers to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, concede that Obama demonstrated an ability to seize the moment and make the most of his opportunities. He lived up to expectations that he would perform well; he dealt smoothly with pressure; and he didn't make any big gaffes. He drew huge, receptive crowds in Berlin.

But McCain advisers see a weakness in that Obama emphasized what one called "gooey causes" in his formal addresses, and he seemed uncomfortable providing detailed answers in unscripted settings such as news conferences.

This is encouraging McCain advisers to push again for Obama's participation on town hall meetings or formal debates, where he can be forced off script. Republican insiders also plan to intensify their attacks in order to force the Democratic candidate to make mistakes or go wobbly.

GOP analysts concede that Obama showed considerable expertise in manipulating the media to his advantage, dispensing interviews to the network TV anchors and giving a compelling speech in Berlin Thursday that drew positive coverage. McCain insiders aren't sure how they can minimize all that except for trying to shame the media into giving more balanced coverage.

In addition, McCain advisers concede that Obama's team of handlers and policy advisers seem first-rate, deftly blending pageantry with policy pronouncements and making Obama look like a potential commander in chief. "The pictures were great," says an admiring GOP insider. McCain advisers are already working to improve his own visuals and believe they can match Obama in stagecraft eventually.

Finally, Obama and his inner circle showed a deftness in forcing McCain to respond to various Obama statements rather than come up with his own proactive message day after day. "McCain was an hour behind Obama all week," says a GOP strategist.

The problem is that McCain can be an undisciplined campaigner, and when he sees something he wants to respond to, he plows ahead even if his handlers say he's off message.

Overall, McCain insiders argue that the race remains very close nationally because voters are still skeptical about Obama's lack of experience, his highflying rhetoric, and his liberal views. They will emphasize all three traits for the remainder of the campaign.