Donald Lambro

But here at home, all eyes were on McCain and Barack Obama to see how they would respond to the first major foreign-policy crisis of the 2008 presidential election. This was a test of their judgment and foreign-policy acumen. This was the equivalent of the hypothetical 3 a.m. White House phone call that Hillary Clinton raised when she attacked the freshman senator's inexperience.

In the early hours of the crisis, the contrast between how the two men responded couldn't have been sharper.

McCain laid out a preliminary response on Saturday, supporting the United States, European Union and NATO "acting together by sending a delegation to the region to broker a cease-fire." He backed a declaration by Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, saying that "aggression against a small country in Europe will not be passed over in silence or with meaningless statements equating the victims with the victimizers."

On Monday, he provided a much more detailed response:

-- NATO's North Atlantic Council should "convene in emergency session to demand a cease-fire" and begin discussions on an international peacekeeping force in South Ossetia.

-- The U.S. Secretary of State should begin high-level talks in Europe for a common Euro-Atlantic posture, plus an emergency meeting with the G-7 foreign ministers.

-- Immediate consultations with Ukraine and other countries in the region to take steps to "secure their continued independence."

Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, was slow on the uptake, issuing a perfunctory statement that sent a signal of impotency in the face of a high-stakes foreign-policy crisis in which two countries were at war with one another in Europe.

"I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia and urge an immediate end to armed conflict," he said in a statement. He urged Georgia and Russia "to show restraint" and "avoid an escalation to full-scale war."

But Russia had already taken considerable territory. Events had moved beyond Obama's initial statement during the weekend.

Defense and political analysts expressed disappointment with Obama's slowness to grasp the full range of the crisis, but praised McCain, who had made numerous trips to Georgia, for his understanding of the crisis.

"The Obama campaign has had zero policy prescriptions for dealing with the most serious global crisis since the Iraq war," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

"It made (Obama) look like a deer caught in the headlights. The McCain campaign was way ahead of him by advocating a serious and multilayered global diplomatic response," Cohen told me.

"McCain certainly impresses me with the way he has handled it," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defense and foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"It vindicates the somewhat tougher line toward the Russians that he has advocated. McCain is the one who has distinguished himself here," he told me.

If this was the first real foreign-policy test of the presidential campaign, McCain has scored all the points.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.