London: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly caused a stir on his overseas tour Thursday by questioning whether Britain is prepared to pull off the Olympic Games without problems.
Romney told NBC News "it's hard to know just how well it will turn out" and called the late-developing concerns over security staffing "disconcerting".
Romney, a former businessman and one-term governor who managed the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, is largely untested on the world's political stage, and he hopes to assert himself in a tight and highly expensive presidential race with foreign visits that also include Israel and Poland.
He ended up putting Prime Minister David Cameron at least briefly on the defensive. In response to Romney's remarks, the prime minister said, "We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere." He apparently was referring to Utah.
Meeting with British officials is typically one of the first priorities of any new U.S. president, and establishing those relationships beforehand can help any transition. President Barack Obama met with British leaders when he took a trip abroad while campaigning for president in 2008.
During the public portion of his meeting with Cameron, Romney tried to smooth over his earlier comments. "It is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur," he said. "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."
After the meeting, Romney told reporters that he and Cameron spoke "at length" about Syria as well as Libya, Pakistan and other countries. He did not give details, saying discussion of foreign policy should be made by the president and the administration overseas and not by those seeking office. He did thank British soldiers for fighting alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It wasn't Romney's first meeting with Cameron. The two also talked during a Romney visit to London in 2011. This year, Cameron traveled to the U.S., where he met Obama and attended a state dinner in Washington but did not meet with Romney.
Romney also will spend part of his time in London raising money and highlighting his Olympics experience with an appearance Friday at the opening ceremonies of the London Games.
He met with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now serves as a special envoy to the Middle East. The Romney campaign said the two discussed the Middle East peace process, the situation in Syria, Iran and the wider region. They also discussed economic issues facing both countries.
Romney then met with Ed Miliband, the current leader of the Labour Party — the opposition to Cameron's Conservative Party. Before that session, Miliband invited two reporters from what he called "my side" to ask questions.
Romney declined to take questions from US journalists.
Meetings followed with Foreign Secretary William Hague and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. The meeting with a deputy prime minister is somewhat unusual. It's happening because Britain has a coalition government, and Clegg's Liberal Democrats govern alongside Cameron's Conservative party.
The meetings come a day after the Daily Telegraph newspaper published a story quoting an unidentified Romney campaign adviser saying the Republican believes the US relationship with Britain is special because of shared "Anglo-Saxon heritage" and the White House doesn't appreciate that shared history.
Romney quickly distanced himself from any such view.
"I don't agree with whoever that adviser might be," Romney told NBC News, "but do agree that we have a very common bond between ourselves and Great Britain."
Nonetheless, Vice President Joe Biden and top Obama aides criticized Romney. "The comments reported this morning are a disturbing start to a trip designed to demonstrate Gov. Romney's readiness to represent the United States on the world's stage," Biden said.
Later Thursday, Romney planned to hold a high-dollar fundraiser in London's tony Knightsbridge district. One of the hosts, former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, withdrew from the event after he resigned in the wake of a rate-rigging scandal wracking British banks.