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Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 22:47 UK

Spain puzzled by McCain comments

By Lourdes Heredia
BBC News, Washington

John McCain
In April, Mr McCain called for improved relations with Spain

US Republican presidential candidate John McCain has raised suspicions in Spain that he thinks the country's prime minister is Latin American.

Asked by a Miami radio station if he would meet PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Mr McCain spoke of his record with leaders in "the hemisphere".

His answer led some to suggest he thought Mr Zapatero was Latin American.

Mr McCain's campaign team denied any gaffe, but did say the candidate had refused to commit to a meeting.

Searching for an alternative explanation, some Spanish commentators have suggested Mr McCain may not have forgiven Mr Zapatero for pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq when he became prime minister in 2004.

Misunderstanding?

Before asking Mr McCain about Mr Zapatero, the Spanish interviewer repeatedly questioned Mr McCain about Latin American leaders, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, with whom the US has a fraught relationship.

But the interviewer then changed the subject by saying: "Let's talk about Spain.

"If you are elected president, would you be willing to invite Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to the White House to meet with you?"

"I would be willing to meet with those leaders who are our friends and who want to work with us in co-operative fashion," Mr McCain answered, before moving on to talk about US relations with Mexico.

He did not even mention Zapatero's name
Semanaldigital.com
Spanish digital newspaper

In an effort to draw an answer, the Caracol Miami reporter posed the same question three more times.

Mr McCain gave more or less the same response, saying at one stage: "All I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us and standing up to those who are not.

"And that's judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America and the entire region."

But Mr McCain's answer has itself posed more questions.

Did Mr McCain forget which country Mr Zapatero leads? Did he misunderstand or mishear the question? Or was he intentionally signalling a cooling in the relationship between Spain and the US?

Mr McCain's foreign policy adviser, Randy Sheunemann, said that there was no doubt about the senator's answers.

"The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero, and identified him in the question, so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred," he wrote in an email to the Washington Post.

"Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," he confirmed.

'No mention'

In Spain, opinion was divided on the ambiguous answer.

El Pais favoured the interpretation that Mr McCain knew who Mr Zapatero was, and was deliberately signalling his displeasure with the prime minister's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2004.

"McCain was asked four times and four times he avoided committing to a meeting with Zapatero," wrote the newspaper.

That would be a big change from April, it said, when the candidate told a reporter "it is the moment to leave behind discrepancies with Spain".

El Semanal Digital, an online newspaper, was dismayed by the interview.

"He did not even mention Zapatero's name" it wrote.

Mr Zapatero himself seemed untroubled, telling Spanish media that his government would work with Washington "whoever wins the elections" in the US.


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