Mitt Romney stumbles out of the gate on world trip. Will US voters care?

Mitt Romney is off to a rocky start on a trip meant to showcase his abilities as a statesman. First was an aide's 'Anglo-Saxon' comment, then the candidate cast doubt on Olympics preparations.

Jason Reed/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives at 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, July 26.

Mitt Romney’s seven-day overseas tour, designed to showcase the presidential hopeful’s statesmanlike qualities, is getting off to a rocky start.

First, the London daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed Romney aide as saying that the Obama presidency does not fully appreciate the “Anglo-Saxon” heritage that Great Britain and the United States share. Coming after weeks of Governor Romney describing President Obama’s ideology as “foreign” to most Americans, the remark caused a transatlantic tempest. 

Then Romney ruffled more than a few Anglo-Saxon feathers by casting doubt on preparations for the London Olympic Games, which kick off Friday.

In an interview broadcast Wednesday on NBC News, the former Olympics chief (he led the 2002 Salt Lake City games) referred to what he called “disconcerting” pre-game security issues, and said that “it’s hard to know just how well it [the London Games] will turn out.”

Romney later addressed both squalls: He said he believes Obama “understands” the “special relationship” between Britain and the US. As for the Olympics, he said mistakes were bound to be made in the run-up to any games, but that it was the athletes, the volunteers, and the hosting public that would determine the Games’ success.

The bumps at the outset of Romney’s trip are certainly not what he wanted. But it’s also true that, especially in a campaign that is so heavily focused on domestic economic issues, such “teapot tempests” are unlikely to have a significant impact, political analysts say.

“The whole point of a trip like this is to show that someone like Romney who doesn’t have a lot of international experience can handle the world stage, so anything that gets in the way of that or suggests things aren’t going smoothly isn’t good for the candidate,” says Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow in American foreign policy at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. “That said, these things are tiny blips that are unlikely to be remembered in November.”

While that may be true, Mr. Henriksen says such pre-election overseas trips have nevertheless become “de rigueur” for presidential candidates to prove their leadership mettle. Then-Senator Obama’s 2008 overseas trip, which included a rock star’s reception at a speech in Berlin, “resonated” with the public and allowed some voters to “check the box and say, ‘OK, he can do it,’ ” Henriksen says.

The danger for candidates is not so much that the “tiny blips” themselves will matter at the ballot box, but that they will reinforce the negatives that are weighing a candidate down at home.

Thus the pesky nature of the “Anglo-Saxon” kerfuffle. The Telegraph said the quote was from an anonymous Romney aide, and Romney, disassociating himself from the term, noted that a lot of people call themselves “aides’ who in reality have no formal campaign role.

But still the term stuck. One reason is that its association with the Romney campaign played into the debate between the Romney and Obama camps over which side is more “out of touch” with mainstream America.

As Henriksen notes, “Anglo-Saxon” is by now an “old-fashioned sounding” term that defines an ever-smaller slice of the American pie. “People used to say WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] all the time, but America is just so different from what it was just a relatively few years ago,” he says.

Vice President Joe Biden knew an opportunity to drive home the “out of touch” point when he saw it, quickly blasting the anonymous comment as “beneath a presidential campaign.”

The Romney campaign, hoping to nip the controversy in the bud, said the proof that the dreaded quote would not have come from anyone of any stature in its stable of advisers was the very ethnic and cultural variety of the advisory corps.

That said, the word was out that the whole “Anglo-Saxon” tempest had the Romney camp taking extra care to ensure that another potential danger in the “out of touch” minefield – Ann Romney’s dressage horse, set to prance in the London Olympics – does not mar the candidate’s trip.

Mrs. Romney has spoken compellingly about her horses and how they have helped her contend with her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. But dressage horses are very expensive, and risk conjuring up allusions to the Romneys’ considerable wealth and rarefied living. The campaign has yet to live down comedian Stephen Colbert’s recent description of dressage as “Nascar with a velvet top hat.”

As Romney whisked around London and prepared for Friday’s Olympics opening ceremonies, the “Anglo-Saxon” brouhaha was a reminder that the campaign may downshift but does not stop just because the candidate is overseas.

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