Is Romney 'Nervous' In London?

The Olympics kick off with the opening ceremony Friday, but the race for the White House is already in full swing. Mitt Romney is oversees trying to boost his foreign policy credentials, while President Obama is speaking out about gun violence here in the United States. Host Michel Martin speaks with two former White House communications staffers: Corey Ealons and Mary Kate Cary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, let the games begin. As the summer Olympics launch in London, the Barbershop guys are ready to weigh in on the athletes they want to follow and the races they want to watch. That's just ahead.

But first we are going to take a closer look at the race for the White House. The presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney took his message overseas to highlight his diplomatic skills and his own history of success with the 2002 Winter Olympics, but that hasn't worked out quite as planned. And back here in the States, President Obama spoke out about gun violence after the recent deadly shooting in a Colorado movie theater.

We wanted to talk about this and other political news of the week, so we're joined by two guests who have hands-on experience with crafting a message from the White House, or from the top levels of a campaign. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor for the Obama administration. He's currently a senior vice president with the strategic communications firm VOX Global.

Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. And welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

COREY EALONS: Hey, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, let me start with you. Mitt Romney's in England now. Now, he ran into some tabloid trouble when he talked...

CARY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...with NBC earlier this week about the run-up to the Olympics. Now, he'd mentioned some issues with the security firm hired to work at the games and the strike threats in the public sector, but the British press was not pleased with this. And subsequently, he seemed to be backing away a little bit from those comments in several appearances, including on NBC's "Today Show" this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY SHOW")

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I'm absolutely convinced that the people here are ready for the games, and in just a few moments, all the things politicians say will get swept away because the athletes finally take the stage. The games are about the athletes. That's why the games - virtually anywhere they've been - have been highly successful.

MARTIN: So Mary Kate, was this a genuine misstep by the candidate, or is this just the British press being the British press?

CARY: I think it was - the word I'd like to use would be unfortunate choice of words. This is why we have speechwriters like me who help candidates through things like this. It's so easy to make mistakes in a foreign country when you're speaking, because there's so much attention paid and that the words are parsed.

I can't tell you how many times at the White House I had to write remarks for the president for foreign audiences, and I thought they were pretty good. Well, then the State Department would come in or the NSC and they would really insert a lot of really watered down, very boring language. And this is exactly why.

Mitt Romney made the mistake of being honest, I think. But then, as you pointed out, Fleet Street tabloids and some colorful local politicians took the ball and ran with it. The good news is I think he's right. I think as the games get going, people will forget all about this.

And he's got two more chances in - he goes to Israel next, and then Poland. And he's got two more chances to continue the charm offensive.

MARTIN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: Keep charming them.

MARTIN: So, Corey Ealons, you worked for the Obama White House, as we mentioned, in communications. And you remember, you know, years ago, the first lady Michelle Obama was blasted by some because they felt that she was not - I mean, she didn't - apparently, there was the - she got too close to the queen, or something like that.

Or there were some people who suggested she wasn't following, you know, appropriate protocol. And it's worth mentioning that the queen herself disputed that and said that that was not true. But I really - the question remains: Does anybody really care about this? I mean, is one vote changed because of something like this?

EALONS: Well, you know what? I mean, you have to look at what was the justification for the trip. This was supposed to be Mitt Romney brandishing his foreign policy chops for the American people, giving them a reason to say, you know what? This guy is doing what he needs to do. He can stand on the national stage with other leaders from other countries and go toe-to-toe with them.

And let's be clear: This isn't Syria or Iran or Pakistan or China. This is England. This is Great Britain. This is one of the longest-held allies that we've had in this country. So it's not like you had a lot of host nation sensitivities here that you needed to be aware of. It's...

MARTIN: But why do we care, is the question. So what? So what? You're saying it speaks a lack of discipline? Is that what you're saying...

EALONS: Well, I think...

MARTIN: ...that it shows that - what's the importance of it?

EALONS: The brunt of it, ultimately, is that it's one more thing to undermine Romney's justification for his candidacy, the fact that he can't go overseas and have a straight conversation with leaders without a gaffe. And let's be - let's remember there was a gaffe already on the ground before he got there with those Anglo-Saxon comments.

MARTIN: Which were what?

EALONS: Which, basically, his staff had a conversation with a journalist from the London Telegraph and basically said that Romney would have a better relationship with England because he understands the Anglo/Saxon connection. What does that mean, at the end of the day?

That was the first gaffe, before he even got on the ground. Then there was the gaffe about the security issues with the Olympics. Then there was the gaffe about MI6. And I will tell you, he looked - one word - sincerely nervous when he went before the press yesterday after leaving Number 10 Downing Street. He looked very nervous, very confused. And I agree with you, Mary Kate. He needed a speechwriter.

(LAUGHTER)

EALONS: Because when he's going on his own, he's not doing well at all.

CARY: Well...

MARTIN: Well, as you - go ahead, Mary Kate.

CARY: In his defense, I think the Anglo-Saxon comment, his staff is saying is absolutely not true. That was an anonymous quote. And then the Brian Williams - this gaffe was not to the leaders of Great Britain. It was a domestic interview to Brian Williams, in his defense. So he didn't say it to David Cameron.

EALONS: Well, they certainly took offense to it. And I'll say this...

CARY: Yeah, they certainly did.

EALONS: As far as the Anglo-Saxon comment, in '08 when Obama had an issue with an advisor who said something out of the way concerning our relationship with the candidate, that person was immediately relieved from the campaign. It would do Romney well to follow Obama's example and do the same thing here. They know who those folks are. Get them off the campaign.

MARTIN: We're talking about the latest political news with Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report. She's a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. Also with us, Corey Ealons. He's a former communications advisor in the Obama White House. He's currently with the communications firm VOX Global.

Mary Kate, you remember that before the governor went overseas, he gave a very tough speech in - it was supposed to be a tough speech in Nevada to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And part of the reason he gave the speech there is that he said that he believes in, you know, following the tradition of not criticizing - you know, taking your politics overseas, as it were.

So he talked about - you know, he spoke very strongly about the president's policies toward Iran and Russia. He talked about cuts to the military. I'd like to ask you - I guess from putting on your communications hat again - how successful a speech do you think this was in framing Mitt Romney and establishing his expertise in this area?

CARY: I think it was pretty good. It was very well received on the right. The truth of it is, there's not that many substantive differences between the two candidates, especially on counterterrorism policy. Obama, as you probably know, has followed a lot of the Bush administration policies. He's kept Guantanamo open. He's continued warrantless wiretaps, things like that.

So instead, Romney went for more hot-button issues, like these suspected White House leaks of classified national security information, things like that, because his real goal here was to mobilize the base. There are not that many undecided voters, only maybe 8 percent or so right now.

So his goal here was to energize the voters that he has to get to the polls. He needs those defense hawks to vote, and this speech accomplished that. It got that crowd kind of dialed up. And so for that reason, I think it was a success.

MARTIN: Interesting, though, Corey Ealons, because many people are saying that foreign policy really is a strength of this president, that - and what is your assessment of that? What's your take on that?

EALONS: I don't say that. The polling says that, as well. The polling reflects that the American people trust President Obama on foreign policy issues more than Mitt Romney, and that's a first for a Democratic politician in a very, very long time, as you know.

Here's the difference between Romney and the president at the VFW, in particular. The VFW executives actually panned Romney because he came to the VFW once again and didn't offer any specifics about how he would support veterans and their families in a Romney administration. That's a big deal.

The president has put forward opportunities for transition from active duty back into private life. He's offered incentives for businesses to hire veterans, and he's talked about strengthening the Veterans Administration. This time last year, Romney was talking about privatizing the Veterans Administration, and he was quickly lambasted about that by veterans groups, and so he took it back.

But at the end of the day, once again, you don't have Romney putting forward any specifics about how he would conduct foreign policy or how he would support veterans.

MARTIN: Well, finally, the final subject we wanted to talk about today - and it is a sensitive one, and I apologize if we don't have enough time to really flesh this out, but it is something we do want to speak about: the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado last week.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have been talking about this. President Obama spoke to the National Urban League Convention in New Orleans, and here's a clip from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We also pray for those who succumbed to the less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities in so many cities across the country every single day.

We can't forget about that. Every day - in fact, every day and a half, the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater.

MARTIN: Which is true, Corey. But again, here is where the president is being criticized by both the left and the right. The people on the left are saying we need more specifics about what you're actually going to do about this. And people on the right like Mitt Romney are saying we don't need new laws here, that new laws would not have changed what happened here at all. Your assessment here?

EALONS: No, Michel, you're exactly right about that, I think. The president has taken shots on this, especially from the left, because there's been - as there's been increasing violence in urban communities across the country, the administration hasn't had much to say about that, except in some extenuating circumstances.

But I will say this: The difference between the president and Governor Romney on this issue is the president has said he supports a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, and if the assault weapons ban had been in place, that guy wouldn't have had an AR15 semiautomatic rifle that he could've used in that situation. That's a very critical and important difference between the two.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I hate to - we only have a couple of seconds left here, 40 seconds left, but it's true Governor Romney says he doesn't advocate any changes to the gun laws. He says that the laws would not have made a difference here. Does he have an effective message on this?

CARY: Yeah. I think most people agree that there are plenty of good, strong gun laws on the books, that, you know, to get people checked for their criminal records and background checks and all that. In this case, though, you had a law-abiding guy who snapped and had multiple types of weapons on him, not just an assault weapon.

MARTIN: Well, and a very large degree of ammunition. It's not just the weapons.

CARY: And a lot of ammunition. I mean, there's - guys like this, because something's against the law isn't going to stop them. And so to add more laws I'm not sure is really the response. I think that's what both people realize, here, both sides. More laws are not the answer.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report. She was with us from our bureau in New York. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor in the Obama White House. He's currently with the communications firm VOX Global. He was here with me in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you both.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

EALONS: Always good to be here.

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