WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney, looking for a boost after being battered recently by President Barack Obama, heads abroad this week in a bid to portray himself as a wise statesman.
The Republican presidential candidate leaves Tuesday on a six-day swing to the U.K., Israel and Poland. Each stop is choreographed to help him gain stature in the eyes of the American public, not to mention the world. He hopes to create momentum that will continue through August, when he is expected to announce his vice-presidential choice and reintroduce himself to America at the Republican National Convention.
The trip is loaded with political risks as well. Most notably, he could be held to a nearly impossible standard: Obama’s triumphant visit to Berlin four Julys ago. It also could invite another comparison: Many of Romney’s foreign policy advisers are carryovers from the George W. Bush administration, intimately involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that are now broadly unpopular. “It could be ‘son of Bush,’ the horror movie no one wants to see,” said John Hulsman, a Germany-based political consultant.
Romney’s campaign depicts the trip as “an opportunity for the governor to learn and listen,” said Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign’s policy director.
The first stop is London, where he’ll attend the Summer Olympics, hoping for a spate of stories recalling his role in rescuing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He’ll also meet with current and former British leaders and raise campaign money.
Then comes Israel, where Romney will visit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend who has clashed frequently with Obama. Romney also will meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Poland follows, giving Romney a chance to emphasize Obama foreign policy turmoil. He’s been invited by former President Lech Walesa, the Gdansk shipyard worker whose clash with the communist government sparked the march to freedom for the Polish people. Walesa has had an icy relationship with Obama. Romney also will draw attention to Obama’s decision to abandon a missile-defense system that had a key installation in Poland. Poles saw Obama’s move as a win for Russia, which was adamantly opposed to the project.
Romney’s visit will invite comparison with Obama’s 2008 campaign trip overseas, when more than 200,000 people cheered him in Berlin in an iconic moment that seemed to elevate him to the level of head of state, if not European rock star.
Some foreign policy experts, however, downplayed potential perils.
“There are always risks, such as protests, but the benefits outweigh the risks,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Indeed, Romney has little choice but to go right at one of Obama’s strengths, foreign policy. Obama ended American combat in Iraq, is about to end involvement in Afghanistan and had Osama bin Laden killed on his watch. Registered voters favor Obama over Romney on foreign policy by 48 percent to 40 percent, according to a June 28-July 9 Pew Research Center survey.
Where Romney could gain is by appearing statesmanlike and showing he has the chops to stand on the world stage. “He wants to see what allies have to say, and they will have questions. They’re likely to be relatively basic questions,” said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a conservative Washington-based group.
In London, Romney will look for a triumphant kickoff to his tour with the universally popular, nonpartisan Olympic Games as his backdrop.
In Israel, Romney will stress his tough line on Israeli security, pledging that in his first 100 days he would “make clear the military option is on the table” with regard to Iran, and will begin “talks with Israel to increase military coordination and assistance and enhance intelligence sharing.”
In a close election, the Jewish vote could make a difference in swing states Florida, Ohio, Nevada and perhaps Virginia. In 2008, an estimated 74 percent of the Jewish vote went for Obama, and a poll this spring by the Public Religion Research Institute suggested Obama still has strong support.
Robert Jones, the institute’s CEO, said the survey found Jewish voters’ concerns mirror those of the general electorate. Romney’s trip, he said, “will have little effect on the Jewish vote.”
Poland is Romney’s last stop and could be full of symbolism as well as contrasts with Obama.
Poland’s economy has been a rare European success story, “rooted in its commitment to principles of the free market,” said Ian Brzezinski, a Romney foreign policy adviser.
But in going to Poland – as well as to Israel and the United Kingdom – Hulsman thought Romney is missing a bigger opportunity.
“If these countries did all they were supposed to do, they still could not get enough done in just those three countries,” he said. “You have to talk to China. You have to talk to Europe, to Russia.
“We live in a much more shades-of-gray world than Romney is picturing.”