By KASIE HUNT
WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney auditions on the international stage next week as he travels to England, Israel and Poland looking to establish credibility as a potential commander in chief in his challenge to President Barack Obama.
For the Republican presidential hopeful - a former private equity executive and Massachusetts governor with little formal experience overseas - it's a chance to demonstrate competence in settings often occupied by presidents. He'll hold formal meetings with foreign leaders, give public speeches and visit historic sites.
Aides say it's a chance for the candidate to forge links with strong U.S. allies and show that he'll stand up for shared values.
There's also risk: Romney, sometimes prone to misstatements, faces higher stakes wading into delicate diplomatic disputes than he does on the more familiar campaign trail at home. And executing a complicated trip through three countries over a weeklong span presents the most difficult logistical challenge Romney's campaign has yet faced.
The centerpiece of the trip is a politically delicate visit to Israel, where he meets with top leaders who are closing in on a critical decision about whether to launch a military strike on Iran that is opposed by the Obama administration. The relationship with Israel and the question of what to do about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons ambitions represent one of the starkest contrasts between Obama and Romney, who mostly has defined his foreign policy largely in terms of his opponent.
"If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Romney said last year at a GOP primary debate focused on foreign policy.
The Israel visit comes on July 28, when Romney will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and President Shimon Peres. Romney advisers won't say if he will visit the West Bank, but he does plan a meeting with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister.
The trip will be Romney's fourth visit to Israel - he visited in 2011 and gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference in 2007, an address his advisers say will guide his visit next week.
"I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany," Romney said during his 2007 speech.
The trip will also allow him to reach out to Jewish voters in the U.S. - and also to evangelical Christians, a critical portion of the Republican base traditionally zealous about protecting the Jewish state.
"I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite," Romney told an evangelical Christian group in June when asked how he would approach the American relationship with Israel.
Israel is just one of the areas where Romney has drawn sharp contrasts with Obama without always outlining a clear alternative. He's done that with a series of international events, including a crisis over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and a hot-mic comment Obama made to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But Romney's advisers said he plans to be careful not to be seen obviously attacking the president while overseas, following longstanding tradition that U.S. politicians don't criticize their own country's leader while abroad.
For Romney, the trip will highlight an area where polls show he lags behind his Democratic opponent. A CBS/New York Times poll this week gave Obama a 47 percent to 40 percent lead over Romney on which candidate Americans think would better handle foreign policy.
Romney plans to outline his foreign policy vision in a speech Tuesday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nev., before flying to London and the Olympic Games. He goes to Israel from there and finishes in Poland. While abroad, he plans major speeches in Jerusalem and Warsaw, though advisers say he'll steer clear of outlining specific policy proposals in those addresses.
Romney does not plan to stop in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is still fighting a decade-long war, or Iraq, where Obama ended U.S. military involvement as promised. Visiting Afghanistan could have drawn a war-weary public's focus to the ongoing conflict and forced Romney to outline more specifics on how he would handle the war as president. So far, Romney has sought to keep his options open on questions like when to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Obama visited Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign, but the then-Illinois senator was part of a larger congressional delegation.
Romney visited Afghanistan in 2011. Aides said he's skipping it this time because of a tight schedule.
Throughout the trip, Romney will face inevitable comparisons with Obama, whose overseas trip to seven countries during the 2008 campaign culminated with a speech to an audience of 200,000 at the Victory Column in Berlin.
At his first stop, in London, Romney plans meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Ed Miliband, who leads the opposition Labour Party. He plans fundraisers, where attendees will likely include bankers and others from London's financial sector.
Great Britain is America's most important global ally, and the special relationship between the two countries is a primary focus for any new president or secretary of state. Typically, meetings with British leaders are among the first any new American leader holds after taking office.
The Olympics, kicking off July 27 in London, could also offer Romney opportunities for additional meetings with foreign leaders, many of whom will be there for the beginning of the games. Romney advisers said efforts continue to set up additional meetings.
Romney plans to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies and some of the early competitions. The events offer Romney an opportunity to highlight his record at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where he was brought in to run the organizing committee following a bribery scandal. So far, he hasn't talked much about his role at the Olympics on the campaign trail, and it's been mostly absent from his TV commercials. That's likely to change in London, where Romney plans a major interview with NBC News' Brian Williams.
Romney isn't part of the official U.S. presence at the international competition. First lady Michelle Obama will lead the U.S. delegation.
In Poland, Romney will visit a deeply Roman Catholic country that for years has favored Republicans over Democrats. The visit, campaign officials said, comes at the invitation of Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader who co-founded the Solidarity movement and served as Poland's president during the country's transition out of communism. Romney will meet with Walesa in the Solidarity birthplace, Gdansk, and also hold meetings in Warsaw.
In Poland, Romney will have an opportunity to criticize Obama's so-called political "reset" with Russia after U.S.-Russian ties deteriorated badly under President George W. Bush, as well as the Obama administration's decision not to build a missile defense base in Poland.
Romney has referred to Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
He'll likely receive a warm welcome. Poles have never showed the enthusiasm for Obama that Germans and other Western Europeans did, and his popularity there has declined further during his years in office. But for Romney, the critical audience for his Poland trip is likely the many U.S. citizens with Polish ancestry who live in critical swing states across the American Midwest.