Mitt Romney's overseas trip: where he's going and why

Mitt Romney, the man who rescued the Winter Olympics of 2002, is making London the first stop on his tour abroad. From Britain he'll travel to Israel and Poland, with an eye both on policy differences and domestic constituencies.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Reno, Nev., Tuesday, July 24. Mr. Romney is making London the first stop on his tour abroad. From Britain he'll travel to Israel and Poland.

It’s no coincidence that the first stop of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s seven-day, three-country overseas trip is London in full Olympics mode.

By attending the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games Friday and holding a number of high-profile interviews as he does, Mr. Romney hopes to remind voters back home that he rescued the troubled Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002 – and is thus the very fix-it man that America needs.

The overarching goal of Romney’s trip is to demonstrate his statesmanlike qualities and that he’s up to assuming the mantle of America’s leadership role in the world. Romney also wanted to suggest the values his foreign policy would embody, aides say, through the countries he chose to visit on this trip: Britain, Israel, and Poland.

All three countries are “pillars of liberty,” campaign policy director Lanhee Chen told reporters before Romney’s departure. That makes the trip “an opportunity for us to demonstrate a clear and resolute stand with nations that share our values and possess the fortitude to defend those values,” he said.

But just as the stop in London, where Romney landed Wednesday, is about reaching US voters with a particular message, so is each of the presumptive Republican nominee’s subsequent stops.

After London, Romney flies to Israel. The goal there? Firm up the former Massachusetts governor’s support among Evangelicals – and perhaps peel off some of the Jewish vote that went for President Obama in 2008 – by highlighting Romney’s support for Israel and hinting at what he considers has been Mr. Obama’s “shabby treatment” of the Jewish state.

From Israel, Romney will travel to Poland. While the subtext of the stop in Eastern Europe will be to underscore Romney’s support for new democracies – and his rejection of Obama’s “reset” policy of cooperation with Russia – the real objective is to appeal to Roman Catholic voters back home, in particular the ethnic Catholics who could tip the balance in states like Ohio or Michigan.

Nowhere on the trip is Romney expected to pan either Obama or his foreign policy. As the Republican hopeful said in his speech Tuesday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he would not be criticizing Obama while overseas. Not only does tradition hold that it is unseemly for a presidential candidate to criticize the commander in chief from foreign soil, but the Romney campaign knows that Obama remains popular in many parts of the world, even holding his own in recent polls in Israel, where he fared poorly early in his administration.

In pre-trip discussions with reporters, Romney aides set modest goals for the trip, describing it as a “listening and learning” tour to deepen the candidate’s knowledge of issues he would have to deal with as president and his familiarity with world leaders.

Romney was to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday – it is customary for major-party candidates to meet with the leaders of the countries they visit – but the event was billed as a private meeting that would not be followed by the kind of joint press conference that two leaders might give.

Romney is already friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he will sit down with on Sunday in Jerusalem. The two men have known each other for three decades, since their days at the Boston Consulting Group.

And even if all Romney does is appear smiling and friendly with Mr. Netanyahu – and in Jerusalem – the Romney camp intends to contrast that with Obama’s sometimes-difficult rapport with the Israeli leader. They also plan to play up the fact that Obama managed to visit Cairo, where he delivered a major speech to the Muslim World in 2009, but has not visited Israel in his first term. (The Obama team points out that the president, like Romney, visited Israel in 2008 as a candidate, and that George W. Bush did not visit Israel as president until his second term.)

Romney’s overseas tour is certain to lead to comparisons to then-Senator Obama’s trip in the summer of 2008, which culminated in the candidate’s rapturous reception by more than 200,000 well-wishers at an outdoor speech in Berlin.

Romney aides are setting more modest goals for their candidate’s trip, at least publicly. But Obama campaign aides have already pounced on their Republican opponent’s focus on the Olympics for his trip, saying it suggests a candidate who isn’t focused on foreign-policy challenges.

“Mitt Romney owes it to the American people to explain where he stands,” said former White House press secretary and Obama campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs in a conference call with reporters, “[but] Romney is not engaged in these issues.”

Gibbs noted that four years ago, candidate Obama traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to allies in the Middle East and Europe, to hear from leaders and commanders of US forces to better understand the key national-security issues.

Obama’s point then was to underscore for American voters both how his foreign policy would differ from that of the sitting president, and what he meant by a new American leadership in the world.

Romney says he, too, would shift away from the current president’s foreign policy – in his case, to what he says would be a more energetic use of American power. His week-long overseas trip may help reveal the steps he would take to put America on that different global course.

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