WARSAW — Mitt Romney had just delivered a policy speech here Tuesday — hailing Poland for its fiscal austerity — when ABC’s “Good Morning America” came on the air back home with a live report from the speech venue.
But the broadcast did not focus on the Republican presidential hopeful’s message in Poland. Instead, it trumpeted the latest misstep to mar his week-long foreign tour: a tongue-lashing by a campaign spokesman aimed at journalists following the candidate.
“Kiss my ass,” the aide, Rick Gorka, told reporters as they shouted questions at Romney. “This is a holy site for Polish people. Show some respect.”
The moment typified Romney’s tumultuous overseas visit, which was intended to show voters in the United States that the former Massachusetts governor can be a statesman — but ended up underscoring doubts about whether he and his campaign are ready for the next three months.
Romney flew home leaving two questions in his wake: Would the gaffes that dogged him abroad cause political damage at home, and did the trip speak to deeper problems in his campaign that could significantly hamper his hopes of winning in November?
Romney advisers continued Tuesday to say what they have said from the first misstep in London — when the candidate questioned whether Britain was prepared for the Olympics — which is that none of the problems that drew so much attention would affect voters.
Republican strategists outside the campaign agreed. They contended that the trip occurred at a time when Americans are focused much more on the Olympics or summer vacations. Coverage in regional papers, they say, projected Romney as a strong friend of U.S. allies and tough on Iran. Other accounts — such as the candidate offending Palestinian leaders by saying in Jerusalem that the Palestinian economy is weaker than that of Israel because of “culture” issues — were played down by Republican supporters as brief lapses largely hyped by the national media.
“He had a good flight plan but wasn’t wearing a seat belt, hit a lot of turbulence and lost some altitude, but in the end returned safely,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as a media adviser to President George W. Bush.
Whatever the fallout, there were aspects of the trip that drew attention to what could be viewed as weaknesses in Romney’s overall operation, from the messaging team to questions about whether the campaign provides the candidate with all the support he needs.
From the perspective of the Romney campaign, the tour accomplished a variety of goals, including the delivery of messages in Israel and Poland designed to appeal to Jewish, evangelical and Roman Catholic voters in the United States. Romney gave three foreign policy speeches, including one to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., the day he left. But he arrived in London, where he spent three full days, with no particular message.
What he lacked was a strategy designed to draw attention to his role in turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which is generally regarded one of the highlights on his resume. That left it to the British and American media to fill the vacuum with reports about his Olympics comments — which had some Republicans shaking their heads.
“Has a trip convinced voters that he’s ready to be commander in chief? Absolutely not,” said a Republican strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns. “The gaffes have received far more press than anything positive he got anything out of it. The whole experience in England was a disaster. I think it amplified his naivete.”
Even before this week, Romney’s aides had been trying to sharpen the communications operation. Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, has been playing a larger role. But GOP strategists say there is still work to be done.
The campaign was, at best, thinly staffed throughout the week, in terms of foreign policy advisers and senior members of the team. Republican foreign policy experts noted the shortage of foreign policy advisers in the traveling party as a possible reason for the lack of nuance on delicate issues.
In Israel, the presence of a few dozen major donors, including Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, gave the visit the feel of a junket. Campaign aides led donors on tours of Jerusalem’s historic sites, while the fundraisers occupied the front four rows in the audience for his policy speech.
Meanwhile, Romney limited his interactions with the reporters covering the trip. Although he sat for several one-on-one network television interviews, Romney took just three questions from U.S. reporters last Thursday in London and held no media availability for the rest of the trip. And he never came back on his campaign plane to chat with his traveling press corps.
The candidate’s traveling aides limited their interactions, too. In Warsaw, just after Romney finished his big speech, without a spokesperson, one foreign journalist approached an American journalist to ask for guidance in explaining Romney’s policy positions.
Among his top political advisers, only chief strategist Stuart Stevens was aboard, and he arrived after the first problems arose in London. That was taken as a sign that the campaign did not appreciate the complexity of such an undertaking or that it regarded the trip as a lower priority than other pressing needs, such as selecting a running mate or preparing for the Republican National Convention in Tampa at the end of August.
“It seems like they woke up one day and decided they wanted to do an international trip without a lot of strategic thought to what they wanted to accomplish and how it fit into the broader campaign,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said.
Romney’s staff has drawn criticism in recent months, whether it was during shaky early moments or more recently with high-profile tweets or comments from the likes of Rupert Murdoch. But the candidate has shown confidence in his core team.
On Tuesday, Romney blamed not his operation but the press corps for what he described as skewed coverage. “I realize that there will be some in the fourth estate or in whichever estate who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geo-politics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran,” he said on Fox News Channel. “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.”
It took until Tuesday in Warsaw, the candidate’s final stop of the tour, for the campaign to attempt a robust response.
That’s when Stevens argued to reporters that the missteps would not influence voters, who he said “focus on what they find important and what is relevant to them in their lives.”
Asked whether Romney had come overseas unprepared, Stevens said Romney “has a tendency to speak his mind and to say what he believes.”
Of the missteps, he added: “I don’t think that will go down in history as very important.”