Mitt Romney’s trip to Europe and Israel next week gives the Republican presidential candidate the opportunity to establish foreign policy credentials and get a temporary respite from nagging questions about his finances.
His first stop will be England, where Romney will meet with foreign leaders, attend the London Olympic games, and hold fundraisers with American bankers, some of whom are involved in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.
Campaign advisers were divided on whether Romney should go to London, according to one involved in the discussion. Some aides argued that a visit to the Olympics, where his wife’s horse is representing the U.S. in the dressage competition, could draw more attention to his personal wealth, said the adviser who requested anonymity.
Yet Romney, who’d been invited by the International Olympic Committee to attend the opening games, was determined to go. He urged aides to find another location in Europe that they could add to the itinerary, the adviser said.
The result is a week-long voyage that will take Romney from the heart of the Middle East conflict in Jerusalem to the birthplace of Polish democracy in Gdansk.
Romney aides think the trip will give the former Massachusetts governor, who has little foreign policy experience, a chance to demonstrate statesmanship, showing U.S. voters that he could be an effective global player.
“This trip is an opportunity for the governor to listen and learn, to visit countries that share common values, common interests and in many cases share heritage with people in the United States,” said Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director.
In an election dominated by domestic economic issues, Romney has tried to build a foreign policy contrast with President Barack Obama by striking a hawkish position. He’s named Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe” of the U.S. and vowed to take tougher action against a nuclear Iran.
Romney is unlikely to use that kind of rhetoric during his trip, according to aides, who say the candidate is aware that it can be considered bad form to criticize a sitting president while abroad.
“The contrast will be kept here in the states,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul told reporters on a conference call.
Democrats are eager to compare Romney’s trip with the dramatic scenes that unfolded when then-candidate Obama traveled abroad in July 2008. A few weeks before officially claiming the Democratic nomination at the party’s national convention, Obama made stops in Israel, Germany, France, England, Iraq, Jordan, and Afghanistan. The trip drew wide attention and peaked when more than 100,000 people gathered at Berlin’s Victory Column to hear him speak.
Conscious of the optics, Romney aides ruled out a visit to Germany, according to the adviser who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Polls show Obama with a strong lead over Romney on international affairs: In the most recent Bloomberg National Poll, conducted June 15-18, the president led him 57 percent to 36 percent on being better in dealings with world leaders.
Obama campaign aides plan to cast Romney, co-founder of a private equity firm before he entered politics, as unprepared to handle international crisis, while pushing him to offer more substantive foreign policy proposals.
“His policies are a little bit George W. Bush 2.0,” said Charles Kuphchan, an informal foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign, referring to the former president. “The brand of foreign policy that he has been articulating is not a brand that’s welcome in Europe.”
Instead of sweeping speeches, Romney is scheduled to meet with foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a friend and colleague from their work at Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s.
His itinerary should draw attention away from continuing attacks by the Obama campaign over Romney’s refusal to release more than the past two years of his tax returns -- a decision some Republicans also have questioned.
Romney on his trip plans to tap into his network of global business contacts to raise money at two fundraisers in London, organized by executives from banks and other financial institutions.
Co-hosts for the events include Patrick Durkin, a Washington-based lobbyist for Barclays; Eric Varvel, the CEO of Credit Suisse Group AG's investment bank; Dwight Poler, a managing director at Bain Capital Europe; Raj Bhattacharyya, a managing director at Deutsche Bank AG; and Whitfield Hines, a managing director at HSBC Holdings Plc.
The fundraisers were set to be co-hosted by former Barclays CEO Robert Diamond, who resigned on July 3 amid political pressure the London-based bank faced after it admitted to rigging global interest rates. The top Romney bundler dropped his fundraising role soon after.
Passports will be strictly checked at the door to ensure that only Americans are writing checks, according to organizers, who aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the event. Federal law prohibits candidates from accepting money from anyone except citizens and green card holders.
Top Jewish donors are invited to join Romney in Israel and attend a July 29 fundraiser at a Jerusalem hotel. That event had to be moved to 9:30 at night out of respect for Tisha B’av, a Jewish fast day that ends at sundown.
Romney will arrive in Israel as it deals with the aftermath of a July 18 suicide attack on an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria and the escalation of the civil war in Syria -- reminders of the Middle East challenges that will confront the next president.
Friend of Israel
The Republican has attempted to paint himself as a closer friend of Israel than the White House in an effort to woo Jewish votes and donors, whose overwhelming support of Obama has softened, according to some polls.
Exit polls on election day in 2008 showed Obama winning 78 percent of the Jewish vote. A Gallup poll released in June showed his support among Jewish voters at 64 percent. The survey of 576 Jewish voters was conducted from April 11-June 5 and had an error margin was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Romney has pledged to “do the opposite” of the White House on issues affecting Israel, and vowed to make the country his first foreign stop as president. Donors joining Romney in Jerusalem said the visit will underscore that Obama hasn’t visited Israel since taking office in January 2009.
Romney’s “taking the time to go to Israel” less than a month before the Republican National Convention convenes in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 27, said Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based fundraiser for the campaign who’s making a 30-hour trip to attend the Jerusalem event. “It really speaks to his commitment.”