Douglas Cohn: Romney’s gaffes overshadowing his message

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WASHINGTON — The idea that a presidential candidate can burnish his foreign-policy credentials by traveling to three countries in six days is silly to begin with, but that was the premise of Governor Romney’s recent trip to London, Israel and Poland. It was also about raising money. Romney held two fundraisers with Americans abroad in London, and another in Israel, where just 45 donors at a high-dollar breakfast contributed over a million dollars to his campaign.

Maybe the money made up for the negative headlines that followed Romney wherever he touched down. In London, his assessment of the city maybe not being ready for the Olympics became a major diplomatic snub. Romney had hoped to bask in the glow of the games, and instead had to walk back his comments after British Prime Minister David Cameron said there was no comparison between staging a major event in a crowded cosmopolitan city as opposed to “the middle of nowhere,” a reference to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City that Romney ran.

Then it was on to Israel where Romney in his zeal to praise the economic miracle the Israelis have produced in the middle of the desert managed to insult the Palestinians by attributing their economic difficulties to cultural differences. Poland, the third stop on Romney’s tour, was gaffe-free until an aide lost his temper and cursed out reporters traveling with the campaign for shouting out questions to the candidate. The aide’s behavior and subsequent apology dominated the Romney news out of Poland.

Then there’s the Romney horse, Rafalca, participating in the Olympian equestrian event known as dressage, which is horse dancing. Calling dressage the most “hoity-toity” activity one could imagine, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer likened it to John Kerry’s wind-surfing moment in 2004, an upper-class activity easily ridiculed that can doom a candidacy. Humorist Stephen Colbert corrected Krauthammer, saying, “It’s not hoity-toity; it’s “Frou-Frou.”

These incidents examined individually don’t amount to much, but taken together, they begin to build a narrative of a candidate prone to gaffes. And because Romney isn’t providing much substance for reporters to write about, and he rarely takes questions from the traveling press corps, gaffes become the story.

Voters aren’t paying much attention during this summer period, but the Obama campaign isn’t letting up. They’re using this time to define Romney, and his trip abroad fits nicely into their portrayal of him as an insensitive rich guy CEO who’s tone deaf and can’t be trusted to credibly represent his country abroad.

It’s doubtful any of the past week’s embarrassments will be remembered by Election Day, but they are symptoms of Romney’s larger problem with the voters, that he doesn’t come across as a real person. Polls show that the voters think Romney might do a better job in managing the economy, but they don’t like him; they like President Obama. And that contrast is keeping Obama in the game despite the bad economy.

Campaigning in Orlando Thursday, Obama made an impromptu stop at a Puerto Rican café, ordered a pulled pork sandwich with rice and beans, and posed for photographs with a group of kids. Those human moments provide the contrast that Obama is counting on to keep him competitive in swing states like Florida in the months ahead.

Romney is a talented businessman, no question, but when it comes to diplomacy abroad and politics at home, he can be tone deaf. When a pattern emerges in the coverage of a candidate, it can be deadly. Just ask Al Gore, who was portrayed as a serial exaggerator after suggesting in a few ill-chosen words that he had invented the Internet. Every reporter out there now is on gaffe patrol when they’re following Romney, and that isn’t good news for a candidate already too buttoned-up to relate to voters.

U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.