After three months of relentless attention on the economy, Mitt Romney will shift the focus of his campaign this week to foreign policy with a major speech and an overseas trip to three countries.
The Republican presidential candidate will use an address to a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference on Tuesday followed by visits to the UK, Israel and Poland to present himself as a capable commander-in-chief and to draw a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record.
The change in subject could also allow Mr Romney to shift the political conversation at home, which has been dominated by discussion over his tax returns over the past 10 days.
However, Mr Romney might be restrained in his ability to attack the president by the subdued political climate following the shooting incident in Coloradolast week.
Mr Obama addressed the VFW conference in Reno on Monday. “You have the promises I’ve made and the promises that I’ve kept,” he said of his decisions to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lanhee Chen, a Romney campaign policy director said that the trip had been designed to “lock arms with our allies”. The three countries Mr Romney would visit were all “pillars of liberty and fought through periods where liberty was under siege”.
The relative lack of attention that foreign policy has received so far in the election campaign is largely the result of the weak economyand high levels of unemployment. However, it also demonstrates the way that Mr Obama has managed to insulate himself from the conventional attack that Democrats are weak on foreign policy, especially since the operation to kill Osama bin Laden last year.
The UK leg of the trip, where Mr Romney will attend the Olympics opening ceremony and meet David Cameron and Tony Blair, will allow him to emphasize his own successful record running the Salt Lake City Games. However, it is the other two legs that will give him the best chance to distinguish himself from Mr Obama.
Mitt Romney was at the heart of a minor diplomatic incident after he used remarks by Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister, to support his thesis of American decline under President Barack Obama.
At a private meeting with Mr Romney in San Francisco at the weekend, Mr Carr said that the US was “one budget deal away from ending all talk of America being in decline”. It was a phrase — frequently used by Mr Carr — to highlight the potential for a broad deficit agreement that could solve America’s fiscal problems.
But Mr Romney seized on the comment at a fundraiser a few hours later, saying Mr Carr “led the talk of America being in decline”. “That’s not talk we hear about here as much as they’re hearing there. And if they’re thinking about investing in America, entrepreneurs putting their future in America, if they think America’s in decline, they’re not gonna do it,” Romney said.
On Monday, Australian officials sought to clarify Mr Carr’s remarks. “The foreign minister’s remarks represent a considered assessment of the US economy and an antidote to talk of US declinism,” said Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the United States.
In Israel he will meet old friend and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a difficult personal relationship with Mr Obama. The Romney campaign believes that they can peel away some Jewish voters from the Democrats by demonstrating a more convincing support for Israel.
“He is trying to appeal to the Jewish community that he will be a better defender of Israel’s interests that Obama has been,” said Bruce Stokes, a foreign policy scholar at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
From Jerusalem, Mr Romney will visit Warsaw and Gdansk and meet with former president and anti-Communist icon Lech Walesa. The Polish trip will allow him to stress his more skeptical view of Russia — a position that became more prominent after Mr Obama was recorded promising “more flexibility” in his dealings with Russia after the election.
Mr Romney’s tone will be closely watched. After he described Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe”, he was widely accused of having an outdated worldview, including by some senior Republicans.
Until now, Mr Romney’s advisers have taken the approach that every day not spent talking about the economy during the election campaign is a day lost. However, given his lack of international political experience, such a trip is seen as an important way of demonstrating that he would be comfortable on the international stage. At the same time, the Romney campaign is eager not to draw too many comparisons with Mr Obama’s 2008 overseas trip, when he drew a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin.
One of the dangers for Mr Romney of spending so much time talking foreign policy is that it will highlight the lack of specifics behind some of his policies. Leading Republicans, including some of his campaign aides, have struggled to explain his approach to the war in Afghanistan in recent weeks.
The backgrounds and platforms of the main candidates
And while Mr Romney has sought to criticize the Obama administration for its position on Syria and Iran, he has said little on what he would do differently and his party remains sharply divided about how to respond in Syria.
“When you’re commander-in-chief, you owe the troops a plan,” Mr Obama said in his speech, referring to Mr Romney’s position on Afghanistan.
Mr Chen said there would be few detailed policy announcements on the trip, and the Obama campaign is already pressuring Mr Romney to provide more specifics.
Robert Gibbs, former White House spokesman, said that Mr Romney needed to engage in “substantive discussion, rather than just generalities and sound bites”. Otherwise, the trip would be “just one long photo-op and fundraising tour”, he said.