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McCain And Obama: What Happens Over There Hits Voters Here

Colombia hardly constitutes a general election battleground; neither does France or Jordan. But John McCain and Barack Obama head abroad to those countries and others as July 4 approaches because votes can be won there right now.

The votes come from the images, and to a lesser extent the knowledge, candidates get from consultations with foreign leaders and speeches on the international stage. They represent the reward voters confer for stature and experience that reassures them their would-be president can handle international crises and keep them safe.

The value of experience in presidential campaigns shifts with the political winds. In the 25 elections over the past century, the older candidate has won two-thirds of the time. In nine of those 17 victories, the older candidate was an incumbent president.

But at key moments of national unease, voters reject familiar leaders in favor of lesser-known candidates offering change. Think Jimmy Carter over President Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan over President Carter, Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush.

That what Democrats hope for this year. But in all those cases, the challengers could at least boast executive experience from their service as state governors. What makes the 2008 so unusual is absence of either Oval Office or gubernatorial experience in the major-party rivals. McCain and Obama are both legislators.

The clearest difference McCain can point to is his well-known military service. Polls suggest that experience, combined with his familiarity and national security expertise, gives Americans more confident that the Arizona senator is prepared for the presidency.

Concerning Obama, "The question mark for voters is on competency," pollsters Peter Hart and Neil Newhouse concluded after conducting the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey earlier this month. "John McCain's greatest strength is that voters can perceive him behind the desk in the Oval Office."

McCain aims to reinforce that edge with his trip to Colombia and Mexico this week. With his upcoming travel to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan. Obama hopes to narrow it.

The biggest potential pitfall for Obama is an obvious mistake of imagery or rhetoric. Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis drew ridicule for donning a soldier's helmet in 1988.

McCain faced unflattering coverage recently when he mischaracterized Iran as supporting Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq. Obama would likely pay a higher and more enduring price for a comparable flub.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.