In a presidential election in which foreign-policy issues have been notably absent, University of Iowa Professor Emeritus Bruce Gronbeck noted one potential vote-getter for the candidates: The pair's divergent views on the effectiveness of the "surge" in Iraq.
While Democratic candidate Barack Obama asserts troop escalation - which he opposed - has helped the situation in Iraq, he argues that other factors have been involved in the drop in violence. Republican opponent John McCain, a firm supporter of the "surge," has consistently credited the strategy with a decline in violence.
"Those will stay front and center, I think, because the candidates know there's a certain kind of contrast," said Gronbeck, the director of the UI Center for Media Studies and Political Culture. "They hope the contrast will lead to an electoral decision for some people. They'll keep hammering on that."
For Obama, it's a matter of proving to voters that his relative inexperience in foreign policy wouldn't negatively affect his performance as commander-in-chief.
McCain's task, on the other hand, is stressing Obama's perceived lack of national-security judgment and highlighting his own experience.
"Obama is working very hard to demonstrate that he has a vision of foreign policy and how it should work," said Gronbeck, adding that Obama typically goes to great lengths to demonstrate "he's got a mind for foreign policy."
Obama's Iowa spokeswoman Jenni Lee's statement typified that vision argument.
"Time and time again, Barack Obama has led on foreign policy, while the Bush Administration and John McCain have followed," Lee said.
The McCain campaign didn't respond to inquiries on the subject.
"McCain, I think, is trying to demonstrate that he's right so that he can say, 'It's my experience that allowed me to make the right decisions, and I was right,' " Gronbeck said.
Looking at broader policy visions, the two fit somewhat snugly into their respective party's national-security archetypes, UI political-science Associate Professor Brian Lai said.
"The party differences play a role; McCain generally represents this security through strength, while Obama represents security through diplomacy," Lai said in an e-mail.
Another historical similarity: McCain, the GOP's nominee, is viewed as having a steadier foreign-policy hand. Almost 70 percent of registered voters surveyed in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll said McCain "would be a better commander-in-chief of the military."
The poll mirrors post-World War II America, in which Republican presidents have generally been "viewed as more successful than their Democratic counterparts," Lai said. But he added one caveat.
"In addition to party differences, McCain has a long foreign-policy background compared to Obama, so McCain is likely to be trusted more on all foreign policy issues What will matter is what people think is more important, domestic or foreign-policy issues," Lai said.