LONDON — Mitt Romney wanted to highlight U.S.-British bonds — and show off his diplomatic skills to boot — but he managed to rankle the Olympic hosts instead, from Prime Minister David Cameron on down.
The Republican presidential candidate, taking a turn on the world stage, called London's problems with Olympic Games preparation "disconcerting." That prompted Cameron to retort on Thursday that doubters would "see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver." And London Mayor Boris Johnson told tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park: "There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!"
Amid the uproar, Romney tried to back off his critique, finally concluding, "I expect the games to be highly successful."
Romney also caused a stir with his attendance at a fundraiser with banking executives tainted by a British interest rate-fixing scandal. And he inadvertently disclosed that he held a secret meeting with the head of Britain's intelligence service.
The bobbles threatened to undermine Romney's first international tour as the man who would replace Democratic President Barack Obama.
A one-term Massachusetts governor with limited foreign policy experience, he is hoping to show voters back home that he is ready to represent the U.S. strongly and smoothly at a time of global economic turmoil and security troubles. He also wants to emphasize his own tenure running the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City by attending this year's opening ceremonies. And he hopes to draw subtle contrasts with Obama.
"I'm looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again," Romney told donors at a fundraiser, Obama's administration sent back to Britain a bust of Churchill that once sat in the Oval Office. Obama aides say it was scheduled to be returned.
All in all, though, it was a shaky start to Romney's planned weeklong trip overseas that will include Israel and Poland after England.
As he met with British leaders past and present, Romney sought to keep the focus on the close alliance between America and Britain, praising "the unique relationship that exists between our nations, our commitment to common values, our commitment to peace in the world and a desire to see a stronger and growing economy."
But he may have ended up straining his own relationship with the British — and embarrassing them — by questioning whether the country could host a flawless Olympics after years of preparation.
England has constructed an enormous Olympic Park in East London, will showcase tennis at Wimbledon, is hosting soccer in Glasgow in Scotland and has even built a volleyball court behind No. 10 Downing Street, where Romney met with Cameron. Yet, the country has faced steady media coverage of things that have gone wrong: A security firm didn't hire enough people; problems at immigration threatened security risks.
Shortly after arriving in London on Wednesday, Romney told NBC News that it was unclear whether issues that have dogged the final preparations could be overcome, saying: "It's hard to know just how well it will turn out." He made the remark two days before the opening ceremonies and after his staff had attended the dress rehearsal for that show.
By the next morning, Cameron was standing outside Olympic Park responding to questions about Romney's comments.
"We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere," Cameron added. His aides said that was not intended as a jibe at Romney or Salt Lake City. But that didn't stop people on the Internet and elsewhere from suggesting it was.
As criticism of Romney's comments mounted, he suggested it's impossible for any Olympic Games to go off without a hitch.
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