For Romney, London visit has some risks

LONDON Thu Jul 26, 2012 1:36pm EDT

1 of 6. U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks out from a vehicle after meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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LONDON (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's trip to London is intended to enhance his credibility as a world figure in the run-up to the November 6 election but it also could turn a spotlight on some of his political vulnerabilities.

The Republican is scheduled to meet top government ministers and politicians in London on Thursday, the first working day of his week-long trip.

Romney, a former private equity executive, then will attend two fundraisers that have drawn attention in part because their hosts include financiers whose banks have been linked to the scandal over the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate. Romney also will go to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, where his wife, Ann, has a horse competing in the high-brow sport of dressage.

A return to the Olympics is a reminder of Romney's success in leading the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. But the events Thursday also risk reinforcing some of the criticisms Romney has faced during his campaign against President Barack Obama: that Romney's wealth - estimated at up to $250 million - makes it difficult for him to relate to most Americans.

Romney is likely to be greeted with enthusiasm in Britain, which is governed by a coalition dominated by the Conservatives in alliance with the Liberal Democrats. But the former Massachusetts governor also could face some skepticism about his prospects in the November election.

Tim Bell, a member of the House of Lords and a public relations executive who once served as image maker to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a conservative hero, said one of Romney's biggest problems in Britain is that most politicians here think he has little chance of defeating Obama.

Bell said most of his Conservative friends have little regard for Obama and his policies, particularly on taxation and the economy.

"I personally think he's probably the most dangerous president (the United States) has had for decades," Bell said. "He ought to lose on the basis of the economy. But he's probably not going to lose because he's so popular. Romney doesn't have any of that charisma or star quality."

Bell said British Conservatives "would prefer a Republican rather than Democrat as president. ... But most people think (Romney) is unlikely to win."

MEETING TOP OFFICIALS

Romney will meet two figures from the current opposition, former prime minister Tony Blair and current Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Romney's tentative schedule shows him then meeting with a series of top government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, and Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party.

Liberal Democrat policies are not close to those of U.S. Republicans, a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said with typical British understatement.

But he said this would not stop Clegg from engaging Romney in a wide-ranging discussion during their scheduled 30 minutes.

Aides to Cameron did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But during a toast to Obama at a White House state dinner in March, Cameron expressed what sounded like deep admiration for the president.

"There are three things about Barack Obama that really stand out for me: strength, moral authority and wisdom," Cameron said.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday organized by the Obama campaign, Michele Flournoy, formerly the Pentagon's third-ranking official, emphasized the "very close relationship between Obama and Cameron." She noted that while there were some policy differences, the two governments were closely aligned on some key issues, including how to end NATO's combat mission in Afghanistan.

Flournoy said one of the few foreign policy specifics that Romney has outlined is his opposition to the U.S.-British plan on Afghanistan, and questioned "whether Romney will double down on his opposition to the plan to end the war when he meets with the prime minister."

AWKWARD PUBLICITY

Thursday evening, Romney is scheduled to attend two political fundraisers - one a $2,500-per-person reception, the other a private dinner costing $25,000 to $75,000 a head, according to copies of the invitations.

The events attracted awkward publicity when it emerged that Bob Diamond, the former CEO of Barclays Bank, was one of the hosts. Diamond, who quit this month after he was implicated in the LIBOR scandal, decided to "step aside" from the fundraisers.

But another Barclays executive, Patrick Durkin, is still listed as a chairman of the reception and co-chair of the higher-priced dinner. Executives of other banks linked to the scandal - Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and HSBC - are listed as co-chairing one event or the other.

Eric Varvel, a Mormon Credit Suisse executive listed as a co-chair of the dinner, was reported by Reuters in March to have set off an email chain within the bank seeking donations to Romney that resulted in solicitations being received by non-U.S. citizens, who are barred by law from contributing to U.S. presidential candidates.

Invitations to Romney's London fundraisers say that people buying tickets "must provide a copy of a U.S. passport." Romney campaign officials did not respond to emails requesting further information.

After a mid-afternoon meeting on Friday with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Romney will attend the Olympics opening ceremony. One of the biggest selling points on Romney's resume is his successful - and profitable - stewardship of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Romney's trip also has drawn him into a controversy over whether the International Olympic Committee should observe a moment of silence at the opening ceremony to honor Israeli athletes who were killed by Palestinian gunmen 40 years ago at the Munich Olympics.

Romney had been silent on the issue for years, including during the Salt Lake Games. But this week Romney, who is scheduled to visit Israel after London, said he supports calls to honor the slain Israelis. The International Olympic Committee has said the opening ceremony is not appropriate for such a gesture.

Ann Romney's Olympic dressage horse, named Rafalca, has become part of the presidential campaign back in the United States as it prepares to compete here in the elite sport in which horses "dance" to music.

An ad released by Democrats, which pokes fun at Mitt Romney's refusal to make public all but two years of his tax returns, features video clips of the horse in competition.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, David Lindsey and Bill Trott)

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