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David Cameron and Barack Obama: Both sides hope they can win in the game of basketball diplomacy

By David Usborne in Washington

Afghanistan is on fire and the leaders of the two largest Nato powers fighting there, Barack Obama and David Cameron, were headed for a college basketball game in Ohio. Popcorn and hotdogs were on the agenda.

The Prime Minster and the President were victims of bad luck. Nobody could have foretold the rampage by a US solder at the weekend that left 16 innocent Afghan civilians dead and plunged relations between Kabul and Nato into crisis once more. Until then the boys' night out seemed like a fine idea.

British diplomats here were smug. Reinforcing the myth of that "special relationship" is what they are paid for. The trip to Ohio was to be on Air Force One and Mr Cameron is the first foreign leader invited on board by Mr Obama.

It was meant to be a no-lose opportunity for the President, too. America is settling down for its annual "March Madness" ritual, a month of college basketball competition that sends TV ratings through the roof. What better way to showcase camaraderie with his British counterpart than to share a first-round game with him?

Even setting aside Afghan sensibilities, Mr Obama may still have been glad to take the trip. Yesterday was another big moment in the Republican nomination contest with primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and Mr Obama has already demonstrated talent for siphoning media attention away from the GOP at pivotal moments.

Then there was the location of the game – the main arena at Dayton University which, according to the White House, is "steeped in basketball history". What it might have added is that Dayton is in the heart of Ohio, a state "steeped in electoral history". No Democrat since John F Kennedy has won the White House without first winning Ohio on election night.

With so much focus on the mess of the Republican primary competition, it is easy to forget that Mr Obama has his own concerns ahead of November. That his prospects for re-election remain dicey were highlighted by a New York Times/CBS poll yesterday that showed his approval rating sinking suddenly to 41 per cent, a terrible number for any incumbent hoping to keep his job. A Washington Post poll this week showed a slightly less dramatic slide.

If there are any second thoughts about sharing a page of basketball diaries, the two leaders will have time today to wear a more serious face. Behind closed doors there will be areas of potential difficulty. Washington has been disappointed by Britain's refusal to join the European Union's new fiscal discipline treaty, while London is equally irked the US voiced support for Argentina's call for talks at the UN on the Falkland Islands.

A joint press conference will emphasise what binds them particularly on foreign policy. The two leaders are equally anxious to restrain any Israeli impulse to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and keep on the sanctions track. They are also expected to pledge to stick with their plans for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan through to the end of 2014 even if in Washington at least there is simmering debate about accelerating its pace.

Mr Cameron will not have the chance to reciprocate the sports invitation this summer. It will be Michelle Obama who leads the US delegation to the London Olympics, the White House said last night, not Barack.

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