By KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Basketball fan-in-chief President Barack Obama gave British Prime Minister David Cameron a front-row seat to March Madness on Tuesday, taking his European partner to an election swing state for an NCAA tournament basketball game.
The two leaders sat near one end of the court at the University of Dayton Arena for a "First Four" matchup between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, a gesture of goodwill during Cameron's official visit to the United States and a way for an incumbent president to reach sports fans in an election year.
The setting created the image of two buddies, dressed in casual clothes, eating hot dogs and enjoying the NCAA tournament, one of America's premier sporting events.
Cameron, who enjoys tennis and cricket but had never been to a basketball game before, said during a halftime interview on truTV that Obama was "giving me some tips. He's going to help me fill out my (NCAA tournament) bracket." Obama replied, "And he's going to teach me cricket."
Cameron marveled at the speed of the game and, in the end, got to see a spirited encounter. Mississippi Valley State had pulled away but Western Kentucky made a valiant comeback, winning in the final seconds 59-58.
Obama's quick trip to Ohio gives him a chance to connect with basketball fans and generate attention in Ohio, which he carried in the 2008 election and is considered one of the top toss-up states in 2012. The trip comes one week after Republican front-runner Mitt Romney captured Ohio's GOP primary.
The high-profile appearance also gave Obama a chance to project his image on a night when Republicans were awaiting primary results in Alabama and Mississippi, continuing a practice of grabbing some of the spotlight on Republican contest days.
In a courtside interview with sportscaster Clark Kellogg, Obama said he wanted to take Cameron to "the great state of Ohio," noting that many foreign leaders only get the opportunity to visit coastal cities like New York, Washington and Los Angeles. "The heartland is what it's all about," Obama said.
The White House said the trip to the NCAA tournament game was intended to showcase the special relationship between the two key allies during Cameron's three-day visit. Obama and Cameron will discuss the upcoming NATO and G-8 summits on Wednesday, followed by a state dinner at the White House.
Obama gave Cameron the royal treatment, inviting him to fly on Air Force One and enjoy a quintessential American tradition. The lavishing of praise on Cameron came at a time of weighty foreign policy challenges in Afghanistan, Iran and Syria. Britain has been an important U.S. ally in Afghanistan and the bombing campaign in Libya that led to the removal of Moammar Gadhafi.
Adding to the heavy hoops flavor of the day, Obama announced his NCAA tournament bracket picks to ESPN, the sports network he watches on a daily basis. On Tuesday, the network teased Obama's selections by revealing his Final Four picks: Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri and North Carolina.
It was the fourth straight year that Obama filled out an NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN. On the women's side, he selected Baylor, St. John's, Connecticut and Notre Dame to advance. ESPN will reveal the president's full men's bracket Wednesday.
Obama seemed to relish courtside for a basketball game, his favorite sport. He frequently pointed to some of the activities on the floor, appearing to explain the game to his British counterpart. Early in the first half, two young women arrived with hot dogs for both leaders, along with a bottle of water for Obama and a Coke for Cameron, who spread ketchup on his hot dog.
With 12:30 remaining in the first half, Obama clapped after Mississippi Valley State's Terrence Joyner put in a layup and the president later nodded approvingly when Joyner's teammate, William Pugh, scored on a breakaway dunk.
After a low-scoring first half, Obama told Kellogg that "both teams are shooting terribly.
"It may be nerves," the president said. "These are not teams that normally end up coming to the tournament."
Obama was seated next to Cameron and Marvin Nicholson, a White House aide. Three young women sat next to Nicholson and got to chat with the president. Cameron was also seated next to Downing Street Chief of Staff Ed Llewellyn, who chatted with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Students and staff members of the University of Dayton sat nearby.
Kasich, a former Ohio congressman, said he discussed shale gas development in Ohio with Obama. "He's concerned about the environment. We can do it where it's environmentally sound, and we can get the jobs," Kasich said.
Some Republicans panned the trip, saying many Americans would prefer Obama to focus on more pressing issues.
"While showing off our amazing college basketball teams is great, many Americans struggling to find jobs, dealing with soaring gas prices, or concerned with our rising deficit and debt would probably like the president spend at least as much time dealing with those issues," said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee
Basketball has been a big part of Obama's life. At his Hawaii high school, Obama frequently carried a basketball along with his school books and bonded with his teammates on the court. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, played college basketball at Princeton and is now head coach at Oregon State.
The president regularly plays pickup basketball and keeps close tabs on his favorite NBA team, the Chicago Bulls. In a recent interview, the president said he gets League Pass on his iPad, letting him watch out-of-market NBA games on his tablet computer.
Obama kicked off the basketball season with a Veterans Day game between Michigan State and North Carolina on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in November, enjoying a game on the aircraft carrier that took Osama bin Laden's body to a burial at sea after the U.S. raid that killed the al-Qaida leader.
"Part of what makes this wonderful is not only that anybody, at least at the start of the tournament, has a dream about winning it," Obama told Kellogg. "But the way it brings the country together, and families and communities, people rooting for their alma mater."
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