Homeward bound: Did Romney get anything out of his foreign tour?

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

WARSAW, Poland—As Mitt Romney stood on stage here delivering the final speech of his weeklong overseas tour, television correspondents were positioned just yards away, pre-taping hits for Tuesday's morning news shows back in the United States—and the stories were not just about the substance of Romney's remarks.

A little over an hour before, several reporters traveling with Romney were rebuked by Rick Gorka, the candidate's traveling press secretary, as they shouted questions at the candidate at a public plaza near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"Gov. Romney, are you concerned about some of the mishaps on your trip?" CNN's Jim Acosta shouted.

"Gov. Romney, do you have a statement for the Palestinians?" the New York Times' Ashley Parker yelled.

"What about your gaffes?" The Washington Post's Phil Rucker added.

While the candidate ignored the questions, Gorka rushed over to the reporters, who were standing about 20 yards away from Romney's motorcade as it sat parked just off a busy public street.

"Show some respect," Gorka snapped.

When a reporter complained the press corps traveling with Romney hadn't had a chance to ask a question of the candidate in days, Gorka, a brusque but usually affable presence on the trail who is known for quoting "Seinfeld," became visibly irritated.

"Kiss my ass," he replied. "This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect."

Gorka later apologized—but by then, he was already famous to millions of TV viewers, who had listened to a clip of the tense exchange replayed on virtually all of the major news networks on Tuesday morning.

The run-in was quickly declared to be another distraction for the Romney campaign, which has struggled to stay on message during the candidate's international tour. But the episode pointed to a larger question about Romney's visits to the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland: What exactly was the message?

Before Romney began his foreign jaunt, his aides cast the trip as a chance for him to prove to voters he was a capable of handling foreign affairs—largely considered one of the weaker elements of his political resume.

But Romney and his campaign were on defense literally from the moment he arrived in London, the first stop of his tour. His comments to NBC News suggesting that London's preparations for the Olympics were "disconcerting" caused a firestorm within the British media—and prompted more bad headlines back home.

Romney went before reporters to clarify his remarks—the only time he took questions from the full traveling press corps during his entire trip. But his campaign offered no pushback to the drama—even though, as the Washington Post's Erik Wemple noted, Romney was merely repeating what the British media had been agonizing over for weeks.

In Israel, Romney seemed to have a smoother start, but courted controversy again when he seemed to suggest at a fundraiser in Jerusalem that Israel was doing better than Palestine economically because of its "culture." Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the campaign, told reporters traveling with Romney that the candidate's comments had been "grossly mischaracterized"—but the campaign offered no explanation for what Romney actually meant.

The most extensive pushback didn't come until Tuesday, when Romney himself  told Fox News he wasn't specifically referring to Palestinian culture in his remarks at the fundraiser—a clarification that doesn't seem to change the general meaning of his comments but still marks the most significant level of defense the campaign offered after his statement.

Romney could have offered the clarification Monday—and a longer explanation of what he meant. But campaign aides offered reporters traveling with the campaign no access to the candidate Monday.

With the exception of his brief London press conference, Romney kept his distance from reporters throughout his entire trip. While he has been known to come back and mingle with reporters on long flights, he rarely left his seat during a five-hour flight from London to Tel Aviv on Saturday and did not come back during a four-hour flight from Israel to Gdansk, Poland, on Monday.

His only interaction with reporters was a series of sit-down interviews with TV correspondents—and a wave he delivered in response to a wave from a reporter who tried to get his attention as he prepared to exit his plane in Warsaw on Monday night.

As Romney shook hands after his final speech in Warsaw on Tuesday, Stuart Stevens, one of the candidate's top political strategists, was asked by reporters to explain what Romney had accomplished with his overseas trip.

Stevens, who proclaimed Romney's trip to be a "great success," said the trip had given Romney a chance to get a better sense of "events on the ground." He said the tour had helped voters learn more about where Romney stands on specific issues—even though, he acknowledged, Romney's remarks overseas were largely constrained so as not to be perceived as being critical of President Barack Obama while overseas.

Stevens insisted the controversies that trailed the campaign—including the Olympics comment—would not affect voters' opinions of Romney.

"I don't think that will go down in history as very important," Stevens said. "I think that the public is very good at discerning what's important and what's not important. I don't think they give equal value to all things, and I think the people focus on what they find important and what is relevant to them in their lives."

Stevens argued Romney was already viewed as presidential material because of his background and accomplishments—and the trip, he said, had not undermined that with voters.

"He has a tendency to speak his mind and to say what he believes and whenever you do that, there will be those that disagree with you and there will be those that agree with you," Stevens said. "I think people like that. I think that this idea that you have to not speak your mind is something that's not very appealing to people."