Mitt Romney wrapped up a bumpy three-country overseas tour on a high note Tuesday, meeting with Poland’s leaders, being warmly received by large crowds as he visited sacred sites and delivering a lofty speech about the persevering values that unite the nation and the United States.
After days of bad headlines prompted by gaffes Romney made in England and Israel and criticism from foreign leaders, the final leg allowed Romney to both highlight foreign policy contrasts with President Barack Obama on issues such as missile defense and to court swing-state voters of Polish descent or the Catholic faith.
Emphasizing the deep ties of friendship between America and Poland and expressing his appreciation toPoland for standing beside the U.S. in conflicts over many generations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Romney said he was inspired by “the path of freedom tread by the people of Poland.”
“Our nations belong to the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice,” he said in a speech at the library of the University of Warsaw. “I believe it is critical to stand by those who have stood by America. Solidarity was a great movement that freed a nation. And it is with solidarity that America and Poland face the future.”
The three nations that he visited — England, Israel and Poland — were far apart on the map, he said, “but for an American, you can’t get much closer to the ideals and convictions of my own country than you can in these places.”
The two-day visit to Poland was marred Tuesday when a Romney press aide cursed at reporters who shouted questions at Romney as he walked across a plaza to his car after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The aide later apologized.
But it was a far less consequential bit of negative publicity than the gaffes Romney made on the trip — questioning Britain’s preparedness and excitement for the Olympic Games and musing during a fundraiser in Israel about how the economic disparities between neighboring countries, including Israel and the Palestinian areas, show the “power” of “culture.”
Democrats argued that the trip showed Romney was ill-prepared to represent the United States on the international stage.
“He both offended our closest ally and triggered a troubling reaction in the most sensitive region of the world,” senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs told reporters. “He certainly didn’t prove to anyone that he passed the commander-in-chief test.”
The Romney campaign insisted that the trip was a success, and that voters at home would not be concerned by any missteps.
“I think people understand that big elections are about big things. ... This is not a race that has been affected by small things at all. I think it means absolutely nothing to the people at home because it has no relevance to their life. It doesn’t matter,” said chief strategist Stuart Stevens. “If the mayor of London is saying something. ... It’s not what people are looking for.”
Romney made 10 stops in Gdansk and Warsaw over two days. He met with leaders including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa, who co-founded the Solidarity movement and who snubbed Obama during his 2011 visit to Poland. Romney also visited historic sites such as the Memorial of the Warsaw Uprising and Pilsudskiego Square.
Political experts and some GOP operatives said that while Obama does not have many foreign policy weaknesses, the Poland visit allowed Romney to highlight key differences with him on missile defense and the United States’ relationship with Russia.
Relations between the United States and Poland have cooled, notably in 2009 when Obama scrapped a George W. Bush-era plan to build a missile-defense system in Poland and replaced it with a different plan to be completed by 2020. Romney has assailed the move as trying to appease the Russians, though he has committed to the same timeline as long as certain conditions don’t change.
“Poland (is) a symbolic location because that was kind of the epicenter of the controversy. Republicans are arguing Obama sold the Poles out by backing down,” said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Nothing happens by accident. You don’t go someplace because you think it would be kind of cool to go there.”
Romney’s visit also allows him to court American voters of Polish descent and Catholics who live in swing states. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio alone there are more than 220,000 voters of Polish descent, a group that could make a difference in a tight election.
“Certainly a speech in Poland would help,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “As generations go on it becomes less and less but there still is very much an ethnic pride and ethnic connection in a lot of these older industrial cities.”
Even before Romney landed in Boston Tuesday evening, his campaign had put out press releases announcing the leaders of “Polish Americans for Romney” and “Catholics for Romney” coalitions.
(Reston reported from Warsaw, Mehta from Los Angeles.)