March 13 (Bloomberg) -- It’s an official visit between two longtime allies, so naturally U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is brushing up on his brackets.
Cameron arrived in Washington today for meetings and a state dinner at the White House tomorrow. First things first, President Barack Obama flew him to Dayton, Ohio, for a uniquely American experience: the first game of the men’s college basketball tournament.
Cameron, whose sporting tastes run more toward hunting and horse racing, told reporters traveling with him that he’s been brushing up on the rules of basketball. It was his first time at a game.
He’s also being introduced to the peculiarities of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, in which 68 teams compete in rounds of games, known as brackets, that winnow the field down to two teams that will compete for the championship April 2 in New Orleans. The brackets are fodder for office pools and online contests across the U.S.
“I’m being briefed about bracketology,” Cameron said.
Obama’s invitation to the U.K. leader to join him on Air Force One for a flight to Ohio, then watch the game and conduct a television interview, is a respite from a lengthy list of issues, such as the war in Afghanistan and efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Cameron is the first foreign leader to travel with Obama aboard Air Force One, the modified Boeing Co. 747 jet used by the president.
“Male bonding? Exactly,” said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The personal relationship -- you can’t quantify it but it’s really, really important.”
The trip conveys a message, Conley said, that “Obama has strong relations and he uses them to ensure strong support” for U.S. foreign policy.
It may not hurt that the game is in Ohio, a swing state Obama won with 51.4 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.
Obama, 50, and Cameron, 45, attended the first-round game in Dayton between Mississippi Valley State University and Western Kentucky University. The president stood for a courtside interview with Cameron by CBS Sports’ college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg.
Obama gave a bit of first half analysis -- “Both teams are shooting terribly” -- and said he was glad to bring Cameron to the middle of the country during his U.S. visit.
“Sometimes when we have foreign visitors they only see the coasts,” Obama said.
Cameron said the game is “pretty fast and furious,” making it sometimes difficult to follow the referees’ calls. He said Britain is set to welcome basketball players and other athletes for the Summer Olympics.
“We’re going to be rolling out the red carpet,” he said. “Everything’s on time, on budget.”
Western Kentucky tonight defeated Mississippi Valley State, 59 to 58, kicking off three weeks of basketball games known as March Madness. The University of Kentucky is favored by Las Vegas odds makers to win the NCAA Division I men’s national championship.
Obama often spends free time shooting hoops on weekends at the Interior Department or Fort McNair, or watches his daughter Sasha play basketball. And every year he’s been in office, the president has selected his brackets for the NCAA tournament on ESPN, the sports cable channel owned by Walt Disney Co.
Obama picked the University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, the University of Missouri and the University of North Carolina to reach semi-final round known as the final four, ESPN reported. Obama will release his brackets at 9 a.m. Washington time tomorrow.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, said he won’t be filling out brackets.
“I’m not plugged in well enough this year to do that,” he told reporters traveling with him today.
The five hours or so that Obama and Cameron will spend away from Washington represent an investment of time that can help cement relations between two leaders who already share the bonds of history, defense and the economy. Obama’s also reciprocating after his own trip to London in May 2011.
“It’s publicizing the visit of a foreign leader to a very different demographic to a different part of the country that may or may not be watching what’s going on in Washington,” Conley said.
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