LONDON (Reuters) - By the end of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s first full day in London on Thursday, he had been the target of a verbal jab from the British prime minister and had been mocked by the city’s mayor, who spoke before a cheering crowd.
So it is safe to say that Romney’s trip - carefully choreographed to boost his image on an international stage - has not gone exactly as planned.
The Republican ruffled British feathers by appearing to suggest in a U.S. television interview on Wednesday that London was not ready for the Games, whose opening ceremony in the British capital is on Friday.
“It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” Romney, who led the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, told NBC News of London’s Olympic preparations. “There are a few things that were disconcerting,” including the threat of a strike by immigration and customs officials.
The comments provoked an uproar in the feisty British media and drew a biting response from Prime Minister David Cameron, one of the government officials with whom Romney met briefly on Thursday.
Cameron, who was forced to deploy extra troops to bolster security at the Olympics to cover a shortfall left by a private contractor, defended Britain’s handling of the Games and seemed to suggest that the challenge was significantly greater than what Romney faced at Salt Lake City’s much smaller Winter Games a decade ago.
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” the Conservative prime minister said during a news conference at the Olympic Park in London. “Of course, it is easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson cast aside diplomatic niceties when addressing a cheering crowd in Hyde Park, an Olympics venue in central London.
“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson said, in a moment that could have been scripted as a commercial for U.S. President Barack Obama, Romney’s opponent in the November 6 election.
“He wants to know whether we’re ready,” Johnson called out to the crowd. “Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are.”
The scene, and Cameron’s remarks, put Romney in damage control mode at the start of a foray to Britain, Israel and Poland that is scheduled to be light on policy pronouncements and heavy on photo opportunities and fundraising.
Romney, who has made much of his record in helping to save the failing Salt Lake Games, predicted the London Games will be highly successful.
“We talked about the great progress that has been made in organizing the Games,” Romney said after meeting Cameron in a Downing Street parlor where the arena for Olympic beach volleyball could seen out the back window.
“My experience as the Olympic organizer is that there are always a few very small things that end up not going quite right,” Romney added. “Those get ironed out, and then when the Games themselves begin, the athletes take over.”
Romney has traded on his Olympic stint in a political career that has included serving as the governor of Massachusetts. He often cites his Salt Lake City experience as a key reason why he has the can-do spirit to rebuild the U.S. economy.
His comments about the London Games followed what already had been an inauspicious start to his week-long overseas trip, designed in part to establish his foreign policy credentials with voters back home.
Romney had to disavow comments by an unidentified adviser who told the Daily Telegraph that Obama, the United States’ first African-American president, had mishandled U.S.-British ties and that Romney better understood the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” between the two countries.
On Thursday, Romney also took the unusual step of acknowledging that he had met with the head of MI6, Britain’s secretive foreign intelligence agency, when asked about his discussions with British officials about Syria.
Such conversations are not normally discussed publicly by government leaders.
“I can only say that I appreciated the insights and the perspectives of the leaders of the government here and opposition here as well as the head of MI6 as we discussed Syria and hoped for a more peaceful future for that country,” he said.
Romney also is using his visit to raise campaign cash from Americans living in Britain, and plans to pull in about $2 million to add to his huge campaign war chest.
The Republican was careful to avoid criticizing Obama while abroad, but in his fundraising speech he did pledge to restore to the White House a bust of Winston Churchill that Obama sent back to the British government when he took office in 2009.
“I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again,” Romney said.
Romney’s discussions with British officials, including Cameron, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband of the opposition, and others were dominated by the Euro zone crisis and its impact on the British and U.S. economies, a senior Romney adviser said.
Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt and Afghanistan all came up during the discussions, but Romney would not talk about specific policy proposals to avoid any appearance of critiquing Obama, the adviser said.
Romney, who polls indicate is in a tight race with Obama, is due to leave London on Saturday for Israel.
Editing by Jon Boyle, David Lindsey and Mohammad Zargham