Mitt Romney returns from an erratic, six-day overseas tour with no discernible boost to his foreign policy credentials, and facing fresh questions about his campaign operation as it enters a critical period.
While the presumed Republican nominee’s string of gaffes and international mini-incidents may not sway U.S. voters, whose chief concern is the domestic economy, it has reignited some Republicans’ concerns that the troubles Romney encountered abroad are indicative of his campaign’s weaknesses at home.
John Weaver, who advised the party’s 2008 nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, said the flare-ups that consumed Romney’s trip reflected a broader problem: With the candidate eschewing risk and offering little detail about what he’d do as president, his campaign is being defined by small things.
“He comes across sometimes as if he’s Gulliver and he’s tied down by all the Lilliputians when he could actually stand up and exert some strength -- he just seems to be tied down by a lot of little things,” said Weaver, who advised Romney’s Republican primary rival former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman Jr. “If they were a little bolder, a little more specific and took some chances -- I don’t consider them chances, but I know they see them that way -- I think he could win.”
Calls for Romney to reset his campaign come as he enters one of the most intensely scrutinized periods of the election contest. He will roll out his vice presidential pick in the coming weeks, and, later this month, will officially receive the party’s nomination at the Florida convention.
Campaign aides said the trip was a success and insisted that it will have little impact on the election. While foreign tours are a good way to help candidates bulk up their resumes in preparation for the three presidential debates this fall, voters are far more concerned about the country’s slow economic growth, said Romney strategist Stuart Stevens.
“People understand that big elections are about big things,” he said.
Some Republican veterans worry it won’t be an easy pivot. “When you’re on defense it’s hard to get back on offense,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican national committeeman who also advised McCain.
President Barack Obama’s campaign, he said, “can’t win on substance,” and therefore has settled on a strategy of using the summer to try and make Romney an unacceptable alternative.
“That said, the Romney campaign has to get out there and get on the offense and talk about big ideas,” Duprey added. “This has been the least substantive campaign in history.”
Weaver also called on Romney to release more specifics about his plans to spur growth and create jobs. Without that, he said, it gives the Obama re-election operation a chance to raise doubts about what Romney would do.
“I don’t think it’s going to be enough to simply keep your fingers crossed until November that the economy continues to do poorly and Obama will be unacceptable,” Weaver said. As a challenger, Romney has “an obligation, I think, to tell the American people what you plan on doing, and secondly, it can help him get past this hump where he’s not likable.”
The Obama campaign is already renewing demands that Romney release more than two years of his tax returns, an issue that was gaining traction before the trip even among some Republican- leaning groups.
“Maintaining the secrecy creates the impression, justly or not, that there is something there to hide,” concluded a July 26 editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader, a newspaper influential in Republican politics. “No escaping that reality. The impression is there. And it will cost Romney votes he cannot afford to lose.”
As Romney flew home to Boston, a super political action committee backing him, Restore Our Future, unveiled a biographic ad yesterday. The ad features Gold medalists, including skater Kristi Yamaguchi, from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics that Romney ran testifying to how he turned around the games and inspired them.
In addition, the Romney headquarters announced a handful of appearances for later this week in Colorado and other western states, including an event with Republican Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, names that have been floated as potential vice presidential picks.
While such an announcement isn’t expected, the appearance will change the conversation from the foreign trip and provide forums for Romney to talk about jobs and the stalled recovery and renew his criticism of Obama’s handling of both.
Romney’s London visit “was a lay-up -- it was a clear chance for him to dote on England and give a huge, fat, wet kiss to everybody involved in the Olympics, and he missed that opportunity,” said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, who advised former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania during his primary challenge to Romney. “But I don’t think that’s going to matter to anybody in the long run --it’ll be forgotten, if it hasn’t been forgotten already.”
The three-country tour was supposed to be Romney’s debut on the global stage, a way of establishing his foreign policy credentials and showing voters that he could be a credible commander-in-chief.
Instead, it suggested the shaky stage directions of a campaign that’s not quite ready for prime time.
One of Romney’s assets, his leadership of the Salt Lake City games, was turned into a punch line after British Prime Minister David Cameron, smarting from Romney’s criticism of security in England, said “it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
‘Shake Your Head’
Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W.Bush, commenting on Romney’s Olympics security remark during a July 27 Fox News interview, said: “You have to shake your head.”
What was supposed to be the biggest moment of his trip, a pro-Israel address as the sun set on Jerusalem’s Old City, was overshadowed by an off-message comment about Iran from a senior aide that Romney had to clarify.
The campaign sent only a handful of staff members abroad with the candidate, including four policy advisers -- only one of whom stayed the entire time.
By contrast, when Obama traveled abroad as a candidate in 2008, he was joined by senior advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and a long list of foreign policy experts, including Susan Rice, Dennis Ross, Richard Danzig and James Steinberg.
In the absence of any new policy pronouncements, the media coverage of the trip centered on the gaffes and fundraising events that raised more than $3 million.
For the Israel donor event, top fundraisers, including casino executive Sheldon Adelson, were greeted with gift bags, toured Jerusalem in private vans and were ushered to front-row spots at his speech.
Romney dismissed the criticism yesterday, blaming the media for overplaying the dust-ups that trailed his trip.
“They’ll instead try to find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country,” in an interview with Fox News, two hours before he left for Boston.
Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who chairs the University of Southern California’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, said while Romney’s overseas blunders won’t hurt him with swing voters, the trip was a “missed opportunity for him to begin to establish himself as a leader on the world stage.”
Still, as Romney’s campaign distributed a plethora of news releases and fact sheets yesterday about his outreach to the Polish and Israelis while abroad, Schnur noted, “he may have done himself some real good with a few critical voter blocs,” including evangelical and Jewish voters who prioritize Israel, and Polish-Americans.
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