At a gathering of mostly American Jewish donors, Romney implied that Israel was more advanced than the Palestinians because of cultural superiority. The comment drew a charge of racism from the Palestinians' chief peace negotiator, with whom the U.S. has been working to reach a two-state peace deal with Israel and counter the threat posed by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rejects Israel's existence.
The comments in some ways reflect the demands of a presidential campaign and the thousands of speeches, fundraisers and public appearances each candidate must make.
Obama, too, has made mistakes. He was forced to apologize to Poland's president in June after using the expression "Polish death camp" in reference to an extermination center operated by Nazi Germany on Polish soil during World War II.
Romney's Spain quip might play well with Americans closely split on the election, who've heard from both candidates about the perils of economic contagion from Europe's debt crisis. It also was meant as a reminder of the $16 trillion U.S. debt that Obama presides over.
But even if it barely registered in a debate that most observers credited Romney with winning, the comparison may do damage. By singling out Spain, Romney ruffled feathers in a country he will probably need to call on for assistance if he becomes president. Spain has almost 1,500 troops in Afghanistan. It contributed fighter jets, refueling planes and naval vessels to the U.S.-led NATO mission that ousted Libya's Moammar Gadhafi from power.
"When you have a party or politician that has not been in power nationally for a while, there is a learning curve," said Frances G. Burwell, director of transatlantic relations at the Atlantic Council. "Europe has changed rapidly in terms of its governance rapidly. It's a very diverse place. But I'm sure a Romney administration would quickly get up to speed on this."
Burwell didn't see Romney's slighting of Spain or other European countries significantly straining ties or complicating tough questions on the horizon for any U.S. president, such as troop deployments in Afghanistan. But she said his critique of Spain's government spending level was somewhat strange considering the Madrid government is assertively cutting expenditures to avoid a European bailout and the high levels of American debt.
Added Heather Conley, European director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "Europeans ask the U.S., 'What about you?' This isn't helpful to either side of the transatlantic relationship."
Associated Press writer Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.
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