High risk, high reward? Why presidential candidates go abroad


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers a speech in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29, 2012.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

It’s easy to understand why a presidential candidate, particularly one who’s trailing his opponent in perceptions of preparedness and experience, would decide to visit a foreign country: the trip can provide a high-profile opportunity to recast oneself as a plausible commander-in-chief – someone capable of operating confidently on the global stage.

That’s if the trip is successful, of course. And that’s a big “if.”

The latest White House hopeful to burnish his globetrotting savvy was Donald Trump, who this week visited Mexico and met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Given Trump’s controversial rhetoric on Mexican immigrants, his proposal to make Mexico pay for a border wall, and the barbs he’s exchanged with some Mexican politicians, there was ample reason to believe the trip would go south (pun intended).

Clinton: Trump "choked" 06:11

What actually happened, then, may have surprised some people: Trump managed to avoid any major gaffes, he was received respectfully and afforded a near-presidential level of stature by his Mexican hosts. The bilateral remarks with the Mexican president, the associated photo-ops: it was a remarkable display of discipline and poise from a candidate who’s trained observers to expect anything but.

A New York Times reporter wrote of Trump, “He displayed an almost unrecognizable demeanor during his afternoon in Mexico, appearing measured and diplomatic.” An accompanying news analysis piece​ described him as “solicitous, even pleading” in his visit to Mexico, saying he “shirk[ed] confrontation” and read from a “cautious, tightly-phrased statement.”

It was, in other words, a rigorously managed visit – and a fairly successful one, if the aim was to present Trump to American voters as someone capable of behaving like a president. A few hours later, perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump was back in Phoenix, Arizona, firing up an audience with renewed calls for Mexico to pay for the construction of a border wall​. The GOP nominee said the wall didn’t come up in his meetings with Pena Nieto; the Mexican president said it was the very first thing they discussed. But despite the complications, Trump’s campaign likely got what it wanted from the trip across the border.

The last Republican presidential candidate to travel abroad during the campaign wasn’t so lucky. When 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney visited Europe and Israel in July 2012, bad headlines seemed to dog him at every stop along the way. After he seemed to question Britain’s readiness to hold the 2012 Olympics in London, the British tabloids and chattering class savaged him. When he blamed “culture” for the wealth gap between Israelis and Palestinians​, he drew another round of condemnation. One of Romney’s spokesmen lashed out at the press during a trip to Poland, telling a reporter who complained about a lack of access, “Kiss my ass.” And after his trip to Israel, Romney’s team was forced to rebut suggestions that the GOP nominee had given the Israelis approval to preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear program.

The press widely panned Romney’s trip​, and in retrospect, most observers believe it was a mistake: It didn’t do much to advance Romney’s charge that President Obama was shredding U.S. alliances and that he would be a better man to safeguard them. It revealed him as a somewhat awkward ambassador for U.S. interests. And it took him away from the domestic campaign trail during a crucial period in the race.

CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford spoke with Romney on the July 29, 2012 broadcast of “Face the Nation,”​ while he was still in Israel. The interview is above.