Mitt Romney stumbled on the first day of his foreign trip Thursday when the Republican candidate appeared to question London’s ability to host the summer Olympics.
In an interview in London, where Romney began his trip, he described a few “disconcerting things” about the readiness of the host city, which on Friday will hold the opening ceremonies of the world’s biggest sporting event.
Romney’s comments were a huge story all day in the London newspapers, some of which relished in the Republican’s gaffes.
London Mayor Boris Johnson used Romney's comments to rally a concert attended by about 60,000 people in Hyde Park: “There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are.”
Before a meeting with Romney, British Prime Minister David Cameron touted the games as a chance for the United Kingdom to show the world it has come together and is “extremely good at welcoming people from across the world.”
He also appeared to take a dig at Romney, who is known for turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which were on the verge of insolvency before Romney took over.
Noting the difficultly of hosting the event in a metropolis, Cameron said, “It's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere."
Romney’s comments about the London Olympics during an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams were an eyebrow-raising moment. Williams was not asking questions that demanded skepticism about London’s ability to host the event, and Democrats, eager to note any gaffe by the Republican, seized on Romney’s comments.
“It's hard to know just how well it will turn out,” Romney said of the games.
“There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials — that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” he said.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee also seemed to question British enthusiasm for the Olympics.
“Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?” he asked. “That's something which we only find out once the games actually begin.”
At an appearance with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, Romney looked to repair his remark.
“My experience with regards to the Olympics is it is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur. Of course there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes," Romney said, referencing a question about early missteps at the Olympics — and implicitly his earlier criticism.
"The games are, after all, about the athletes, the volunteers and the people of the community that come together to celebrate those athletes. They are not about the Organizing Committee. And as soon as the sporting events begin, we all forget the organizers and focus on the athletes.”
Cameron acknowledged the “extraordinary” nature of the event was bound to have some glitches.
“We can't say to people that life is going to be completely as normal — it isn't,” he said. “This is an extraordinary few weeks for our city, for our country, and I think people have to be prepared for some difficulties as a result of that. We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world.”
And back home, Romney surrogates downplayed the importance of the remark.
“We’re not worried about overseas headlines. We’re worried about voters back here at home in America,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said on a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon.
“Gov. Romney has said that he expected the London Olympics to be a phenomenal success. The reality is we’re all rooting for our American athletes. We hope they come back with a bunch of medals, and I’m sure they’re going to be very successful, but the reality is the focus needs to continue to be on the issues that are important to voters back home.”
Romney arrived in London on Wednesday, where he’ll spend the next two days meeting with current and former British leaders and attending the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
The trip is intended to highlight Romney’s foreign policy credentials and diplomatic skills.
But the Olympics comments weren’t Romney’s only misstep.
The candidate let slip that he had met with MI6 head John Sawers on Thursday, though the meeting had not been publicized. The British are notoriously tight-lipped about their intelligence services, only officially acknowledging that the Secret Intelligence Service even existed for the first time in 1994.
“I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and opposition here as well as the head of MI6,” Romney told reporters. “We discussed Syria and the hope for a more peaceful future for that country.”
Republicans said acknowledging the visit paled in comparison to some of President Obama's intelligence missteps, pointing to a recent flap over whether the White House had leaked classified information about cyberattacks on Iran for political gain.
— Posted at 10:22 a.m. and updated at 6:08 p.m.