LONDON - Mitt Romney — a one-term governor untested on the world's political stage — faces high stakes in the coming week during visits to England, Israel and Poland. It's a trip that amounts to an international audition.
The Republican presidential candidate is seeking to persuade voters back home to elect him their leader in a complex, dangerous world. And his trip will invite comparisons to Barack Obama's successful overseas 2008 tour before he won the White House.
Romney, whose decades in private business gave him ample exposure to international affairs, hopes to prove that he is no novice on foreign policy. At the same time he'll be highlighting a key part of his resume — the successful Salt Lake City Olympics he managed — with a visit to the opening days of the London Games. He's also planned a series of meetings — and photo events — with political leaders in the three countries he's visiting in hopes of projecting an image of leadership.
His itinerary is limited to a few tightly controlled appearances in countries that are close allies of the United States, suggesting that Romney knows there are risks as well as potential benefits to his trip.
Romney will be visiting two countries in Europe, a region he's spent most of his campaign criticizing. Beyond that, he's certain to face pressure to outline where he stands on such weighty matters as missile defense, Afghanistan troop levels, violence raging in Syria, the nuclear threat from Iran and the Middle East peace process, putting him on the spot to add details to a foreign policy vision that so far has been short on them.
He also faces the tricky task of contrasting himself with Obama while staying true to his promise not to openly assail the president while on foreign soil, honoring longstanding tradition that American politicians don't criticize their government while abroad. Drawing implicit contrasts with the president also could be difficult because Romney has so far not outlined sharp foreign policy differences with his Democratic opponent.
"I don't want to be in any way critical of the president or to be fashioning foreign policy departure from the president, while I'm on foreign soil," Romney told NBC News during a Wednesday interview in London when asked about how he would help Israel as president. "But I can tell you that, that with regards to any nation that, that feels its security is at risk that they should have a firm conviction that America is securely behind them."
The sheer logistics of putting together an overseas political trip could stress a campaign still trying to transition from the primary season and struggling to compete against Obama's battle-tested re-election machine. Anything short of flawlessness could raise questions about whether Romney and his team are ready to go head-to-head against Obama this fall, whether they're "ready for prime time."
The trip also will keep Romney off the campaign trail for a full week as Obama hammers him in states essential to winning the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory this fall. There are signs that Romney may have been gaining some traction after a month of being on the receiving end of Democratic attacks by assailing the president over a remark about business owners. Obama has spent the past few days on the defensive.
Plus, the campaign's focus on foreign policy for the week takes the spotlight away from the central argument for Romney's candidacy — that Obama is hurting the economy and the Republican's business experience makes him best able to spark job creation — and puts attention on a Romney weakness.
Republican presidential candidates traditionally have had an advantage over their Democratic opponents on foreign policy and national security. But an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday shows that Americans, by a 10-point margin, trust Obama as commander in chief over Romney.
Just over 100 days until the election, polls show the race close, and Democrats and Republicans agree that it's likely to remain so heading into the fall. In tight races, anything can tip the balance — a foreign trip included.
Four years ago, Obama was a first-term senator when he spent part of the 2008 summer traveling to war zones, the Middle East and several European countries. The high-profile trip intended to burnish his foreign policy credentials culminated with a speech to hundreds of thousands of people outside the Victory Column in Berlin. The rock-star reception he received was intense. So was the wall-to-wall media coverage back home.
"The American people knew exactly where Barack Obama stood on all the major foreign policy issues of the day" after his trip, former Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said. "The question I think for Governor Romney is whether this trip will be similarly substantive, and live up to the bar that was set in 2008, or whether this is one long photo-op and fundraising tour."
Romney's campaign dismisses any comparison, saying Romney's goal is to listen and