WASHINGTON (AFP) — John McCain's campaign Thursday refused to say whether the Republican candidate would welcome Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero -- the leader of a key NATO ally -- to his White House.
McCain was asked whether he would meet Zapatero if he wins election in November in an interview with a Miami radio station.
The interview caused a stir because some McCain critics are arguing he appeared either to confuse Zapatero with a Latin American leader or did not understand the question about the Spanish leader.
"Finally, let's talk about Spain," the interviewer said. "If you are elected president, would you be willing to invite President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to the White House to meet with you?"
"I would be willing to meet with those leaders who are friends and want to work with us in a cooperative fashion," McCain said, but then went on to talk about Mexico.
"And by the way, President Calderon of Mexico is fighting a very, very tough fight against the drug cartels.
"I am glad we are now working in cooperation with the Mexican government on the Merida plan. And I intend to move forward with relations and invite as many of them as I can, of those leaders to the White House.
When asked whether Zapatero would get such a meeting, McCain said: "Honestly, I have to look at relations, and the situations, and the priorities but I can assure you I will establish closer relations with our friends, and I will stand up to those who want to do harm to the United States of America. I know how to do both."
McCain foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann dismissed the notion that McCain had either been confused, or did not hear the question.
"The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero, and ID'd him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred," Scheunemann said in a statement sent to AFP.
"Senator McCain did not rule in or rule out a White House meeting," with Zapatero.
"If elected, he will meet with a wide range of allies in a wide variety of venues but is not going to spell out scheduling and meeting location specifics in advance.
Scheunemann also turned the issue into an attack on Democratic candidate Barack Obama, whom he said had make "reckless promises to meet America's adversaries."
"It's called keeping your options open, unlike Senator Obama who has publicly committed to meeting some of the world's worst dictators unconditionally in his first year in office."
Republicans have not forgiven Zapatero, whose Socialist Party was re-elected to a second term in March, for withdrawing Spanish troops from the US-led coalition in Iraq in 2004.
A McCain campaign official said on condition of anonymity that Zapatero had been seeking a White House meeting, and had sent representatives to contact both campaigns.
"Senator McCain knew exactly what he was saying," the official said.
Zapatero was quoted as saying by Spanish media on Wednesday, that it was logical that McCain was showing prudence ahead of an election, adding that his government would be willing to meet with the next US administration whatever its political "color" as a global partner of the United States.
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