Raising His Profile and Looking for Votes
At first glance, Mitt Romney’s overseas trip itinerary — Britain, Israel and Poland — sounds like a tour for folks on the hunt for religious antiquities. But in fact Romney is hunting for something else, credibility and votes.
This is Romney’s maiden voyage on the international political stage as a presidential candidate. He’s hoping the meetings he had in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair will help make the case that he’s ready to step into the role of a world leader if he wins the presidency in November.
Romney’s attendance at the Summer Olympics in London is also a nice way to remind U.S. voters about his crucial role in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Utah, a part of his bio that is often overshadowed by his business career and tenure as governor of Massachusetts.
But Romney got off to a bit of a rough start in London. He told NBC News that security staffing problems for the London Olympics were “disconcerting.” That brought a thinly veiled retort from Prime Minister Cameron, who compared the challenges of hosting the Olympics in a bustling city like London with holding games “in the middle of nowhere,” which most people took as a reference to Romney’s organizing work for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 10 years ago.
Romney was also on the defensive over a story in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper quoting an unidentified Romney adviser saying that President Barack Obama did not fully appreciate the shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage” between the U.S. and Britain. Romney said he didn’t agree with “whoever that adviser might be.” Vice President Joe Biden said the reported remarks from a Romney adviser were “a disturbing start” to Romney’s trip.
Israel a Key Stop
Romney has vowed that he won’t criticize President Barack Obama or his policies while overseas, following a long tradition of presidential candidates refraining from politics while abroad. But Romney’s visit to Israel clearly is intended to highlight a major difference with President Obama over the nature of U.S. relations with the Jewish state.
In Romney’s recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nevada, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee referred to what he called the Obama administration’s “shabby treatment of one of our finest friends.” It’s no secret there have been tensions between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a variety of issues.
Romney and his former rivals for the Republican nomination frequently hammered Mr. Obama in debates during the primary elections on how the U.S. was not sufficiently supportive of Israel, especially related to the issue of Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Romney will meet with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials in Jerusalem as well as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Among those joining Romney in Israel during his visit will be a group of fund raisers and supporters from the U.S., including Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Adelson was a big supporter of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries, but quickly switched to Romney once he clinched the Republican nomination. Adelson is a big advocate of closer U.S. ties with Israel and has pledged to spend upwards of $100 million to help defeat President Obama in November.
Republicans hope that Romney’s stop in Israel will help with two U.S. voting constituencies—Jewish-Americans miffed about the tense relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu and evangelical Christian voters in the United States who always regard loyalty to Israel a key component of U.S. foreign policy.
It should be pointed out that Jewish voters historically have supported Democratic presidential candidates. They overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in 2008 and recent polls again give the president a healthy lead over Romney among Jewish voters this year. But Adelson and others hope to persuade Jewish voters in key swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania to vote for Romney this year based on the notion that Romney would be a better friend to Israel than Mr. Obama has been.
Romney has vowed to make Israel his first overseas visit if elected President, pointing out by way of contrast that President Obama has yet to visit Israel since he’s been in office.
Last Stop Poland
Romney’s last stop in Poland gives him an opportunity to focus on another major difference with the Obama administration — the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Romney has referred to Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States and has vowed to reset relations with the Kremlin should he win in November. A central part of Romney’s foreign policy critique of the Obama record is that the current administration has been too soft on Iran, Russia and China and too hard on Israel.
While in Poland, Romney will meet with former President Lech Walesa, still a hero to millions of Americans, especially those of eastern European descent. Romney’s focus on heavily-Catholic Poland plus an earlier meeting while in the U.K. with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny could have appeal to the huge Catholic population in the United States, a constituency where Obama’s support has eroded somewhat since his election four years ago. Many Catholic voters of eastern European descent are located in key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that tip the balance of the election one way or the other come November.
Of course one of Romney’s main goals is to present himself both at home and abroad as a plausible president, commander in chief and world leader. Candidate Barack Obama did a world tour of his own back in 2008, shortly after he clinched the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Then-Senator Obama made stops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain. One of the highlights was Mr. Obama’s speech to an estimated 200,000 Germans in Berlin, which in a sense internationalized his presidential campaign. Republicans used that image in an attack ad during the 2008 campaign as part of an effort to depict Mr. Obama as more of an international celebrity than a serious presidential candidate.
It was important for then Senator Obama to visit Afghanistan and Iraq four years ago because he had so little foreign policy and national security experience, and the trip did help raise his profile as a potential commander in chief with voters. Ironically, four years later foreign policy is a key strength for Mr. Obama. Public opinion polls show the president with a clear advantage on handling foreign policy issues, no doubt in large part because of the successful raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Romney has little foreign policy experience of his own though he did live in France while serving as a missionary for the Mormon Church in the 1960’s.
Romney’s goal here is to be at least competitive with the president on being able to run foreign policy and the military. He doesn’t have to make the case that he would be better than the president, only acceptable.
Once his trip is over, Romney will return to the core message of his presidential campaign, which is convincing voters that this year’s election should simply be seen as a referendum on Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy. Polls show if Romney succeeds in framing the choice in November this way, he’ll win.
By the way, speaking of military service, this will be the first U.S. presidential election since 1944 in which neither of the two major party candidates previously served in the U.S. armed forces. The 1944 campaign featured President Franklin Roosevelt, who was crippled by polio as a young man, and New York Republican Governor Tom Dewey. Roosevelt easily won re-election to a fourth term but died the following April.