The Washington Post

Romney looks for a breakout moment in Israel to salvage foreign trip

Mitt Romney’s Friday was better than his Thursday.

He did very little.

The highlights: Romney walked half a mile on a public sidewalk here (driving would have made him late, because of the gridlock), met with Ireland’s prime minister and sat in the Olympic Stadium to watch the Games’ Opening Ceremonies.

Missing, however, was the breakout moment Romney may need to salvage his overseas tour, which got off to a rocky start when the presumptive Republican presidential nominee openly questioned Britain’s readiness to host the Olympic Games.

Romney’s missteps have drawn extensive mockery in Britain and public consternation from both Republicans and Democrats in the United States, and his campaign advisers were at a loss Friday to put a positive spin on the story — other than to look ahead to the next two stops on his tour.

Romney arrived in London under a bright spotlight, as expected, but apparently without a strategy for conveying a message to voters back home — such as reminding Americans of his widely lauded stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics or promoting his foreign-policy vision.

As a result, there is now immense pressure on him to find better footing in Israel and Poland. Romney’s advisers hope his events in Jerusalem on Sunday — when he will lock arms with Israeli leaders — could create a moment of strength that might redefine the candidate’s intensely scrutinized audition as a statesman.

“We’re now looking forward to the speeches he’s going to make in Israel and Poland, two other very important destinations that are next on the itinerary,” senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.

Fehrnstrom is Romney’s longest-serving top aide and one of his closest political confidants, but his comment came via e-mail from Boston — a fact that neatly illustrated how the Romney campaign has prioritized the foreign trip.

When Barack Obama traveled overseas as a candidate in 2008, it was an all-hands-on-deck event, with senior advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and a full battery of foreign-policy bigwigs — including Dennis Ross, Susan Rice, James Steinberg and Richard Danzig — at his side.

By contrast, Romney’s top political advisers stayed home, though chief strategist Stuart Stevens flew to London to join the entourage Friday. The only senior communications aide on the ground to help Romney navigate the public-relations controversy that erupted following the Olympics readiness comments he made Wednesday to NBC News was press secretary Andrea Saul.

It appeared the campaign had concerns other than the trip. On Thursday, the Romney media office e-mailed reporters 16 videos, statements, research documents or surrogate event announcements pushing Romney’s economic message, but it sent nothing pertaining to his foreign trip.

In his meetings with British and Irish officials, Romney was accompanied by three policy advisers — former senator Jim Talent, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Kerry Healey and campaign policy director Lanhee Chen — but they have less experience and stature than those who accompanied Obama in 2008.

Although Romney’s London Olympics gaffe was his own doing, it raised questions about his level of preparedness. Romney made the comment in an interview with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, which he taped Wednesday afternoon only a few hours after touching down in London. Romney had spent the previous three days in California and Nevada, and his 11-hour overnight flight crossing eight time zones may have resulted in jet lag.

Romney’s advisers and aides declined to comment on the trip’s planning, although they debated for at least a couple of months whether he should make the trip at all. Some advisers worried an ambitious foreign trip could distract from the campaign’s core economic message and that his turn on the world stage would draw inevitable comparisons with Obama’s 2008 trip.

But Romney decided early on that he would come to London for the Olympics. He and his wife, Ann, consider themselves part of the Olympic family, having steered the Salt Lake City Games from scandal to success, and they have made a point of attending every Olympics since. Additionally, Ann Romney’s horse, Rafalca, is representing the United States in the dressage competition this year.

Once the candidate decided, Romney’s advisers mapped out an itinerary that would complement the Olympics, settling on stops in Israel and Poland — two allies whose relationships with the Obama administration have at times been strained.

Romney’s advisers said they hoped to use his London visit to showcase his Olympics story. Yet although he sat for three major television interviews against the backdrop of the London Games, he said little new about his own Olympic experience. Nor did he stage any photo ops, such as events with athletes or tours of Olympic venues, that might draw media attention to the subject.

Meanwhile, despite his aggressiveness in a speech Tuesday in Reno, Nev., Romney has declined to criticize Obama’s foreign policy or detail any of his own proposals while overseas.

So in the absence of any new biographical narrative or policy pronouncements, the media coverage of Romney’s trip has centered on his Olympics gaffe — and the result has been brutal for the candidate.

Even some Republicans acknowledged the damage Romney’s comments had caused. “You have to sort of shake your head,” former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove said Friday on Fox News. But Rove said he did not think it was “a big deal,” adding that Romney “walked it back adroitly, but nonetheless the damage was done.”

On Friday, Romney visited NBC’s “Today” show’s open-air studio at Olympic Park, where he made a sort of mea culpa by asserting, “London is ready.”

Matt Lauer asked Romney to comment on the morning headlines in London’s papers. The Sun, for instance, went with, “Mitt the Twit.”

“You know, I’m absolutely convinced that the people here are ready for the Games,” Romney said. “And in just a few moments, all the things politicians say will get swept away because the athletes finally take the stage.”

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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