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 not give speeches like Obama's Berlin address.
"This trip is an opportunity for the governor to listen and learn, to visit countries that share common values, common interests," said Lanhee Chen, Romney's policy director.
Romney, to be sure, is slated to give a speech in Poland and perhaps one in Israel. But even Republican allies say it's impossible that Romney will generate nearly as much interest as Obama did. Romney also plans a series of interviews while overseas.
There were hiccups before Romney arrived Wednesday in London.
Earlier this week in California, Romney met with Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, and later told donors that Carr sees an "America in decline." A day later, the Australians issued a statement clarifying Carr's comments and insisting that he did not intend to criticize the U.S.
Romney also has faced criticism in the Jewish press ahead of his Israel trip for scheduling a fundraiser on Tisha B'Av, a Jewish fasting day that commemorates the destruction of two temples in Jerusalem. Advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened and insisted the timing of the fundraiser was Netanyahu's decision. Romney aides say the candidate has accepted an invitation to break the fast at a traditional Jewish meal with Netanyahu and his wife.
And as Romney flew to London, the Daily Telegraph newspaper published a story quoting an unnamed campaign adviser saying Romney believes the U.S. relationship with Britain is special because of shared "Anglo Saxon heritage" and that the White House doesn't appreciate that shared history.
Romney quickly distanced himself from any such view. "I don't agree with whoever that advisor might be," Romney told NBC News. "But do agree that we have a very common bond between ourselves and Great Britain."
Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden and top strategist David Axelrod to criticize Romney.
Said Biden: "The comments reported this morning are a disturbing start to a trip designed to demonstrate Governor Romney's readiness to represent the United States on the world's stage."
Romney faces more challenges as he meets with leaders in Britain and Poland and particularly Israel, where he'll face questions about how he would handle one of America' s most pressing national security concerns: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Romney will meet with Netanyahu and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, though he won't spend time with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Romney advisers are mum on whether he plans to go to the West Bank to meet Fayyad or whether he will hold the meeting in Israel, a decision that could be viewed as a snub to the Palestinian Authority.