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Mitt Romney hopes overseas trip will show him as statesman

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Mitt Romney plans to depart next week for a visit to Britain, Israel and Poland, and the Republican presidential candidate hopes the trip will help him project the aura of a statesman and signal to voters back home that he would make a plausible commander in chief.

He will listen to leaders of important U.S. allies, make symbolic appearances at historical sites and build personal relationships. He plans to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing St. and catch up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend from their days as business consultants, while aides are preparing speeches for him to give in Israel and Poland.

Romney is not trying to replicate the dramatic scene that unfolded when then-candidate Barack Obama addressed an estimated 200,000 Germans at Berlin’s Victory Column four years ago, but his trip will inevitably draw comparisons.

Some elaborate machinations are underway to give Romney gravitas wherever possible, but he will journey across Europe and the Middle East as a private citizen, with his visits devoid of the trappings of the presidency.

“It is an elegant dance, but it is one which is performed pretty regularly,” said Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Romney. “I don’t think anybody expects him to be treated as the president; he’s not the president.. . . He’s not going to suggest strategic alliances or say he’s going to sign treaties. This is not the place. This is to demonstrate that he can lead the foreign policy of the United States.”

Romney’s campaign would like maximum attention and access, but his options as a candidate are limited. News photographers can capture many of his meetings with leaders, although in London, for example, diplomatic protocol prevents him from holding a joint news conference with Cameron.

Queen Elizabeth plans to hold an official reception at Buckingham Palace a few hours before the start of next week’s Olympic Games. But Romney won’t be there because he is not leading a national delegation and therefore was not invited, according to an official involved in the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the trip.

Romney plans to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics as a guest of the International Olympic Committee. The official said he will sit in a separate section of the stadium from the more than 100 heads of state who will be there, as well as from the official U.S. delegation, led by first lady Michelle Obama.

British authorities, meanwhile, are taking special care to keep Obama and Romney (as well as their motorcades) from crossing paths during their overlapping trips to London. The goal, the official said, is to ensure “that the first lady and Governor Romney don’t find themselves in a situation they’re not comfortable with.”

Romney is conscious of the tone he sets, advisers said. Although he has used hot rhetoric to assail Obama’s foreign policy, particularly about Israel, he recognizes that it can be considered unseemly for a challenger to attack a president while traveling abroad.

Advisers said Romney’s rhetoric during the trip will focus on his worldview and the United States’ shared values with foreign allies, leaving any contrasts with Obama to be implied rather than stated.

“He will not be ragging on President Obama while he’s overseas,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of Romney’s foreign policy advisory team.

The Republican’s advisers consider the trip an opportunity to shift the campaign narrative away from his Bain Capital tenure and personal finances. “It’s important that he changes the subject from foreign bank accounts to foreign leaders,” one top Romney fundraiser said.

Romney is sure to draw significant media attention, with plans to sit down with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams in London and Fox News Channel anchor Greta Van Susteren in Israel, and he is likely to schedule other television interviews as well.

But the trip brings to the forefront foreign affairs, an issue on which Obama has consistently outpolled Romney. In April, the president led Romney 53 percent to 36 percent on international affairs in a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

In July 2008, after wrapping up the Democratic nomination, Obama traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. An Obama adviser said such campaign trips are “very challenging,” with many opportunities for logistical and diplomatic complications.

“Ours worked out well, but it wasn’t without a whole lot of risk, because there’s a lot that can go wrong,” the adviser said.

Obama campaign aides said Romney must offer substantive policy proposals during his trip, specifically regarding the war in Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Romney’s itinerary is being closely held, with aides saying they are not ready to detail all that he plans to do and say. His schedule in London, where he is to meet with a full arsenal of British officials, is still fluid because he hopes to spend time with visiting leaders of other allied nations who will be there for the Olympics.

Romney’s advisers say he hopes the trip will give voters a clearer sense of his worldview, but he is unlikely to make new policy pronouncements. He plans to deliver a defining speech on foreign affairs on Tuesday in Reno, Nev., at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

From there, he will head to London, where an official with knowledge of his schedule said he will meet on Thursday with Cameron; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; Foreign Secretary William Hague and one of his top deputies, Alistair Burt; Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the country’s treasury secretary equivalent; and Edward Miliband, leader of the Labour Party opposition.

Romney will hold two fundraisers Thursday evening co-hosted by lobbyists and executives from more than two dozen banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions.

He plans to attend the Olympics opening ceremonies on Friday night and perhaps a sporting event or two on Saturday morning before flying to Israel, where he plans to meet with Netanyahu. Their relationship dates to the 1970s, when they worked together as business consultants in Boston.

Romney is expected to meet with U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. His final stop will be in Poland before returning to the United States.

Romney’s advisers said they envision two story lines emerging from his trip, the first being his role running the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The candidate hopes to use the Olympics spotlight to present himself as someone who “turns around tough situations,” said a senior adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the trip.

“What is undersold, or not appreciated enough, is how bad a shape the Olympics were in when he took them over,” the adviser said. “It looks easy in retrospect. When you talk to him, it’s one of the toughest things he did. Second, certainly going to Israel is an expression of your priorities in foreign policy. Governor Romney strongly believes in Israel, and in Israel as an ally, and the strongest threat is Iran getting a nuclear bomb.”

Romney’s advisers suggest that the Israel visit will be a symbolic touchstone, in part because it will remind Americans that Obama has not traveled there since he was elected president.

“Governor Romney is there to show in a very visual way” that he supports Israel, Ros-Lehtinen said. “President Obama made a big deal when he went to Egypt [in 2009] and gave that famous speech, yet he couldn’t go down the block and say hello to leaders of the strongest democracy in the Middle East who are besieged by very hostile neighbors.”

The visit to Israel is an opportunity for Romney to expand his support among Jewish voters. Obama has a wide lead among that demographic, 64 percent to 29 percent, according to recent Gallup polling. In 2008, Obama won with 78 percent of Jewish voters.

Overall, Jews are a small fraction of the electorate, but Christian evangelicals make up a much larger share, and many of them strongly support Israel. Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Romney’s visit to Israel is “very, very important for large segments of evangelical voters.”

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