LONDON — Mitt Romney will land here Wednesday for the start of an overseas tour that will take him into the heart of Obama country: Europe.
As the Democratic presidential hopeful in 2008, Barack Obama’s visit to Europe ahead of the election drew saturation media coverage and massive crowds — including 250,000 people for a landmark speech in Berlin — that cemented the senator from Illinois’s rock-star status in the grand capitals of the Old World. Four years later, President Obama, although somewhat off his peak, still receives approval ratings of 80 percent or higher in Britain, France and Germany.
In contrast, as Romney arrives for a week-long run through Britain and Poland, with a trip to Israel in between, the Republican presidential candidate remains relatively unknown in Europe. His first stop in London has received miserly coverage in the back pages of British newspapers, where he is often characterized by his wealth and Mormon religion. Over the course of an hour in this city’s busy Paddington Station this week, eight of 15 people stopped by a reporter were not sure who Romney was.
“Is he the millionaire?” Barbara Bolan, 64, a retired optician, asked with a puzzled look.
That is, perhaps, exactly the way Romney wants it. Observers cite his seeming reluctance to discuss his time in France as a young Mormon missionary, and the intense if pragmatic Republican focus on his domestic image, as evidence that Romney is happy to stage a low-key tour. Republicans may even consider too much of an outpouring a drawback, given the liberal-leaning image of European politicians. For instance, British Prime Minister David Cameron — a conservative with whom Romney will meet on Thursday — is openly pushing to legalize same-sex marriage and has proudly called his administration the “greenest” in the nation’s history.
There is also the reality that Obama — credited with dramatically boosting the image of the United States in a region that had little love for President George W. Bush — remains so popular in Europe that trying to outshine him here would be too high a bar.
“The Republican Party today is about what’s happening at home, it’s about domestic issues,” said Xenia Dormandy, senior fellow at Chatham House in London. “It’s not looking for a discussion on America’s reputation in the world. Because if Romney gets into that debate, especially in Europe, he is going to lose.”
Romney’s trip should, however, offer him a chance to portray himself as an international statesman. Cameron, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will welcome him. In addition, Romney will meet with opposition leaders and other notable figures, including former British prime minister Tony Blair and the Polish Solidarity icon Lech Walesa.
On Friday, Romney will meet with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, and aides said he may join other foreign dignitaries in London for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, which he plans to attend. He is not expected to deliver formal remarks in Britain.
“This trip is an opportunity for the governor to listen and learn, to visit countries that share common values, common interests, and I should also say in many cases shared heritage with people here in the United States,” Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director, told reporters.
Romney has caused a local stir by tapping the deep pockets of American bankers in London at two fundraisers — one co-hosted by a top lobbyist at Barclays and a dinner costing as much as $75,000 per head — at a time when financial institutions here are facing an image crisis over a scandal involving interest-rate manipulation. In response, a cluster of left-leaning British politicians have put forward a largely symbolic motion chiding the banks for engaging in U.S. fundraising at such a sensitive time.
“I think it offends people’s sense of morals and ethics,” said Grahame Morris, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party. “Barclays should stop promoting candidates that are intent on deregulating the markets.”
In Israel, Romney will attempt to strike a contrast with Obama, who has not visited the country while in office and has had a cool relationship with Netanyahu, aggravated by disagreements over how to promote peace with the Palestinians.
American Jews living in Israel, many of them religiously observant and politically conservative, voted overwhelmingly for Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), in the 2008 presidential election, and Obama is widely considered less than friendly to the policies of the right-leaning Israeli government. That has appeared to ensure Romney a warm welcome.
“He will be received with presidential honor, due both to love of the candidate and hatred of his rival,” Yossi Sarid, a left-leaning columnist and former lawmaker, wrote in the liberal newspaper Haaretz.
In Poland, the last leg of his journey, Romney will find himself in a country where Obama is substantially less popular. A Pew Research Center poll from June showed that 50 percent of those asked had confidence in the U.S. president — far lower than in Western Europe. But on the streets of Warsaw, there has been little attention paid to Romney’s trip.
At the same time, Romney’s status as a candidate rather than an elected leader has led to a delicate dance of protocol, with Tusk opting to receive Romney in his home town of Gdansk, outside the Polish capital.
But Romney might schedule a speech on foreign policy while in Poland. Sources familiar with the planning in Poland said the candidate’s advisers want 1,000 to 2,000 people to attend, a figure that Polish organizers say could be hard to achieve.
Yet some Polish media reports have portrayed Romney’s trip as a reassurance of the traditionally close relationship between the Republican Party and Central Europe.
“There are less and less people in Washington who are familiar with Central Europe,” said Bartosz Wisniewski, a U.S. analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “Mr. Romney has these kinds of guys on his team. We should seize this chance.”
Philip Rucker in Washington, Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem, Eliza Mackintosh in London and Wojciech Cegielski in Warsaw contributed to this report.