(Note: explicit language in the seventh paragraph)
By Steve Holland
WARSAW (Reuters) - Mitt Romney upset Londoners, Palestinians and U.S. journalists on his ill-fated tour abroad, but with voters focused on the economy at home it is unclear whether the Republican presidential challenger’s fumbles will have a lasting effect on the November 6 election.
Romney is facing doubts about whether he can handle himself on the world stage as he tries to replace President Barack Obama.
His blunt comments on the London Olympics, Israel’s culture and the status of Jerusalem showed an awkward tone and an inability to control his own message, a problem that could be magnified in the heat of the campaign’s next 100 days.
Yet U.S. voters, especially in Rust Belt swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, care more about jobs than Jerusalem. It is not certain that Romney will pay at the ballot box for his fumbles.
“I don’t think this will have a lasting impact one way or the other,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “It’s certainly not going to help his goal of burnishing his foreign policy credentials. I don’t think he did that. But I don’t think he hurt himself either.”
The trip ended on a sour note with the media on Tuesday when traveling press secretary Rick Gorka angrily admonished reporters for shouting questions about his gaffes to Romney at a memorial to the late Pope John Paul II in Poland.
“Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect,” Gorka said.
A saving grace for Romney may be that his sojourn took place during a summer down period with Americans more interested in their vacations and the Olympic Games than the presidential campaign.
As the United States winds down its foreign wars and frets about its debt, deficit and high jobless number of more than 8 percent, voters are paying little attention to global matters.
Fewer than 10 percent of people surveyed in regular polls by Reuters/Ipsos over the last 21 months have named foreign affairs as the biggest problem facing the United States.
The number fell to 5 percent in the last poll in April, compared to 46 percent who mentioned the economy.
Still, images like Romney being rebuked by British Prime Minister David Cameron for doubting London’s Olympic readiness, do not help the former Massachusetts governor convince Americans he is ready for the White House.
“It is clear that the opportunity to credential his beliefs with the American voters was nothing short for Mitt Romney of an embarrassing disaster on this trip. So, the notion somehow that this trip and its impacts don’t matter, I think is one of the craziest things that has been said along the course of this trip,” said Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs.
Romney has more of a need to be careful about voters’ perceptions of him than Obama does because Americans are still making their minds up about the Republican. Roughly one in five voters does not have an opinion yet about Romney.
“Romney has an opportunity to change views of him to a larger extent than does the president. There are a large number of people who are still not decided what they think about Romney. Virtually everybody has an opinion of what they think of the president,” said Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Romney’s advisers had debated whether he should leave the United States at all at a critical moment of the campaign when he is running nearly even with Obama in polls by pounding a relentless message that the U.S. economy under the Democratic incumbent has been a failure.
Taking him out of the country for a week effectively muzzled Romney from this message.
On Tuesday, he waved off criticism of his comments about the economies and cultures of Israel and the Palestinians, which he made in Jerusalem at a fund-raising breakfast that raised more than $1 million from a crowd of mostly Jewish-Americans.
“I’m not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy. That’s an interesting topic that deserves scholarly analysis, but I actually didn’t address that — certainly don’t intend to address that in my campaign,” he told Fox News.
Romney’s missteps exposed some weaknesses in his campaign. After controversy swirled around him for days, it was only on Tuesday that the campaign produced a sustained response, when it sent senior strategist Stuart Stevens to talk to reporters.
“I think this trip was a great success,” he said, riding in a motorcade vehicle with several reporters as Romney went to a wreath-laying ceremony at a Warsaw monument.
Republicans pointed to Romney’s unabashed support for Israel as having the potential to peel some Jewish-Americans away from Obama — particularly in swing state Florida — and energize evangelical Christians who have had doubts about whether Romney is conservative enough.
“There were some unforced errors but no lasting damage,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “And he solidified his Jewish base.”
In a week when Newsweek magazine asked on its cover if he was too much of a “wimp” to be president, Romney objected to news media coverage of his gaffes and portrayed himself as dealing with major global issues head on.
“I realize that there will be some ... who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to nuclearization of Iran,” Romney told Fox News.
Additional reporting by Sam Jacobs in Washington and Eric Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman