WARSAW (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrapped up a gaffe-filled European tour on Tuesday dismissing criticism he had undermined his attempt to present himself as a replacement for President Barack Obama on the world stage as one of his aides lost his cool with the media.
Romney’s European tour was meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials but has instead generated embarrassing headlines after he offended the British by questioning their readiness to host the Olympics and the Palestinians by suggesting they were culturally inferior to the Israelis.
In an interview with Fox News, Romney said reporters were allowing themselves to be diverted from woes in the U.S. economy and the substance of his own trip, in which he sided strongly with Israel and raised questions about Russian backsliding on democracy.
“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 a nuclearization of Iran,” he said.
Romney studiously avoided making any off-the-cuff comments to the media on Tuesday however, and, after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, ignored shouted questions from reporters keen to get his take on his trip.
“Governor Romney, are you concerned about some of the mishaps on your trip?” shouted one.
“Governor Romney do you have a statement for the Palestinians?” shouted another.
Ignoring the questions, Romney strode back to his motorcade vehicle as an aide admonished members of the press. “Shove it,” the aide, Rick Gorka, told reporters.
In footage broadcast on Polish television, a voice could be heard telling reporters it was not appropriate to shout questions so close to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “a holy site for the Polish people” and that reporters should “show some respect”.
On the London leg of his trip, the former governor of the state of Massachusetts drew derision from the British press after questioning whether the city was ready to host the Olympics.
On the next stopover in Israel, he angered Palestinian leaders by calling Jerusalem the Israeli capital and saying cultural differences had made Israel more successful economically than the Palestinians.
Stuart Stevens, a senior Republican strategist, said on Tuesday that if some groups had taken exception to Romney on the tour it was because he spoke his mind - a quality that could work in his favor in the election campaign.
“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,” said Stevens.
In Poland, Romney, stuck to the script, saying Russia was faltering in its transition to democracy, while hailing former Soviet satellite Poland as a beacon of freedom that the rest of the world should follow.
In a speech in the library of Warsaw University, Romney named a number of countries he said were guilty of repressing democracy.
“Unfortunately, there are parts of the world today where the desire to be free is met with brutal oppression,” Romney said, listing the Moscow-allied state of Belarus, the Syrian leadership, and Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chavez.
“And in Russia, once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered,” he said in a speech that was met with polite applause from his audience of academics and junior government officials.
Romney has previously said that Russia is “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe”. The Kremlin has opposed the expansion of NATO into its sphere of influence and the West has accused it of mistreating political opponents.
Romney had warm words for his host, Poland, evoking its struggles two decades ago to bring down the Iron Curtain.
Its efforts since then to embrace small government and a market economy - the same model he says is needed to revive spluttering U.S. growth - were praiseworthy, he added.
“In the 1980s, when other nations doubted that political tyranny could ever be faced down or overcome, the answer was, ‘Look to Poland’,” Romney said. “And today, as some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to ‘Look to Poland’ once again.”
However, Poland’s Solidarity movement, that helped topple Communism, distanced itself from Romney’s visit, saying he had supported attacks on unions in his own country.
Romney has pledged not to criticize President Obama from foreign soil, but his comments in Poland - as during the Israel leg of his tour - appeared designed to highlight differences in the candidates’ approach to foreign policy.
Obama has put emphasis on a “reset” in previously fraught relations with the Kremlin. That left some in Poland - which has a bitter history of occupation by its eastern neighbor - feeling Washington was overlooking old allies in Warsaw for the sake of a better relationship with Russia.
“I believe it is critical to stand by those who have stood by America,” Romney said in his speech.
Romney has run a fairly smooth campaign in the United States by sticking closely to a message that the U.S. economy under Obama has faltered with 8.2 percent unemployment.
On foreign issues, however, his performance has been less smooth, drawing criticism from the Obama camp that he is not ready to be U.S. commander in chief.
Editing by Christian Lowe and Andrew Osborn