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Georgia crisis tests presidential candidates

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  • NEW: Obama calls Russia's invasion "turning point" in relationship with West
  • John McCain has been aggressive in condemning Russia's military action
  • Barack Obama is on vacation but receiving briefings about the conflict
  • Obama initially did not cast blame but now has toughened talk on Russia
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(CNN) -- The Georgia-Russia conflict has given the presidential candidates the chance to put their foreign policy credentials to the test.

Sen. Barack Obama is on vacation in Hawaii, but he made a statement about the situation Monday.

Sen. John McCain speaks about the situation in Georgia as he campaigns in Pennsylvania.

With Sen. Barack Obama out of camera range for the most part, Sen. John McCain is jumping on the opportunity to make a distinction between himself and Obama on the issue.

Obama is vacationing in Hawaii, but his campaign says he is being briefed on the situation and he made a statement Monday. McCain, who is hitting the trail in Pennsylvania, has been aggressively condemning Russia's actions.

Tensions between Georgia and the breakaway republic of South Ossetia came to a head August 8 after Russia responded militarily to a Georgian offensive on South Ossetia. Georgia's parliament declared a "state of war" with Russia the next day.

World powers Monday urged Russia to "stand down," respect Georgia's sovereignty and allow the international community to intervene in the crisis. The efforts mark an attempt to prevent a war between Moscow and the former Soviet republic.

South Ossetia is a pro-Russian enclave of Georgia that has sought independence for years, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has supported the region's local government.

With Obama largely out of the news cycle this week, McCain has used the political vacuum to polish his foreign policy credentials.

"Russian President [Dmitry] Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin must understand the severe, long-term negative consequences that their government's actions will have for Russia's relationship with the U.S. and Europe," he said Monday, the latest in his harsh words for Russia.

He urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence, even with the threat of a Russian veto. Russia's actions, he said, must be submitted to "the court of world opinion."

Obama later Monday read a statement on camera in which he seemed to come closer to McCain's position, saying Russia's invasion was a "turning point" in its relationship with the West.

"Let me be clear: We seek a future of cooperative engagement with the Russian government, and friendship with the Russian people," Obama said. "We want Russia to play its rightful role as a great nation -- but with that role comes the responsibility to act as a force for progress in this new century, not regression to the conflicts of the past."

When news broke of the outbreak of violence Friday, both candidates were quick to respond, but McCain was the only one to assign blame to Russia for the escalating hostilities. Video Watch Obama condemn Russia »

"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory," McCain said in a statement to reporters shortly after his campaign plane landed in Iowa.

In a statement sent to reporters Friday, Obama called for an end to the violence, but stopped short of assigning blame, or making strong demands on Moscow. "I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict," he said.

"Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."

On Saturday, both candidates spoke with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Obama toughened his talk, this time laying the blame on Russia. Video Watch Obama express concern for Georgia »

"I condemn Russia's aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate cease fire," he said.

"Russia must stop its bombing campaign, cease flights of Russian aircraft in Georgian airspace and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia."

Obama and McCain take markedly different approaches to foreign policy. McCain has talked about creating a new G-8, the group of the richest countries in the world, that would expel Russia.

McCain said he wants to ensure that "the Group of Eight highly industrialized states becomes again a club of leading market democracies." Asked about McCain's proposal, Obama last month said "it would be a mistake."

Obama said "it is always in our interests to engage, to listen, to build alliances --- to understand what our interests are and to be fierce in protecting those interests."

McCain, a senator from Arizona, has tried to paint the senator from Illinois as naive on foreign policy and has faulted Obama for his willingness to talk with rogue leaders without preconditions.

McCain is known for his pointed words toward Putin. He's told audiences that when he looks into Putin's eyes he "sees three letters: KGB," referring to the former Soviet spy agency.

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McCain's latest offensive harkens back to Sen. Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m." ad. The former Democratic contender ran the ad during the primaries to suggest Obama was not up to the job when it comes to handling crises.

The ad did not work for Clinton, but the McCain campaign thinks the issue may resonate more in the general election with voters concerned about security.

CNN's Peter Hamby and Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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