"I will meet with those leaders who are our friends and who want to work with us cooperatively," said McCain, according to a translation of the interview with a station that is part of Spain's Radio Union network which has grabbed headlines in that country.
The interviewer followed up, looking for a direct response on Zapatero. "Okay, but I'm talking about Europe, the president [sic] of Spain, would you meet with him?"
"I will reunite with any leader that has the same principles and philosophy that we do: human rights, democracy, and liberty. And I will confront those that don't," said McCain.
The seemingly cool reaction to Zapatero appears to represent a shift for the Republican nominee towards the leader of fellow NATO member Spain. Soon after taking office in 2004, the Spanish prime minister did order the withdrawal of the country’s troops from Iraq, drawing the ire of supporters of the war like McCain - but as recently as this April, the Arizona senator reportedly told a Spanish newspaper he would extend Zapatero an invitation.
"I would like for [Zapatero] to visit the United States. I am very interested not only in normalizing relations with Spain but in obtaining good and productive relations with the goal of addressing many issues and challenges that we have to confront together."
Randy Scheunemann said McCain had not been misinterpreted. "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. Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview," he said in an e-mail.
"In this week's interview, Senator McCain did not rule in or rule out a White House meeting with President Zapatero, a NATO ally. 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. He also is not going to make reckless promises to meet America's adversaries. It's called keeping your options open, unlike Senator Obama who has publically committed to meeting some of the world's worst dictators unconditionally in his first year in office."
(Updated with Scheunemann statement to CNN)