Latest Must-Go Presidential Campaign Stop: London | KERA News

Latest Must-Go Presidential Campaign Stop: London

Feb 13, 2015
Originally published on February 13, 2015 6:35 pm

The road to the White House begins with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and in a handful of other states that hold primaries and caucuses early that winnow the field of candidates.

But those aren't the only stops on a would-be president's itinerary these days. There are also, increasingly, early trips outside the U.S. — to a city that's become a major draw for potential candidates: London.

Londoners welcome a chance for a sneak peek at possible presidents who are eager to be seen on the world stage.

But that first encounter doesn't always go as smoothly as candidates would like.

Part of the problem may be how deceptively easy it seems, according to GOP consultant Dennis Lennox. "You should be able to hit it out of the ballpark in London," he says.

He notes that it's a short flight across the Atlantic to Heathrow. Once there, you head into the city to meet with some British officials and business leaders. Then, perhaps, a stop at 10 Downing Street and a photo op in the street with that iconic black door with the brass numbers on it positioned in the shot. Maybe you schedule a speech. And then, on later trips, once you do officially jump into the race, you can raise a lot of campaign cash from a huge community of American expats living in Great Britain.

But there's a catch, Lennox adds, "You've still got to be prepared for the so-called gotcha questions the British press are famous for."

That brings us to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was in London this week on a trade mission for his state. Now, Walker is not yet a candidate. No one is — officially, anyway. But he was treated like one, including at an appearance at a British think tank where the moderator, BBC journalist Justin Webb, ended with a question about evolution.

"Do you ... are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? ... Do you believe in it? ... Do you accept it?"

Walker responded, "I'm gonna have to punt on that one as well."

Webb's reaction: an over-the-top "NOOOOOO. Really?" He added that no British politician from the left, right or center would hesitate even a moment in saying they believe in evolution.

But Walker said, "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or the other."

In that single moment, Walker's "punt" became the most talked about moment of the trip — back in the U.S. and in London.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a similar experience when he was in London last week and said parents need to have a choice when it comes to having their children vaccinated against measles.

"All I can say is that we vaccinated ours," he told a reporter outside a facility that manufactures vaccines. But he went on, "It's much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official." Christie added, "Parents need to have some measure of choice."

He later had to clarify his remarks, stressing the need for vaccinations.

Of course, the benchmark for a bumpy campaign trip to London was set by Mitt Romney during 2012. He was there for the Summer Olympics and suggested the city might not be ready for the event. Speaking to NBC News, Romney said it's hard to know, but that "there are some things that are disconcerting."

Londoners saw that as in insult from an American. At a huge rally of more than 50,000 people in downtown London, Mayor Boris Johnson mocked the GOP nominee when he asked the crowd, "I hear there's a guy named Mitt Romney who wants to know if we're ready. Are we ready?" The roar of the crowd in response was thunderous.

This week, that same London mayor was visiting Washington, D.C., speaking at a breakfast hosted by Politico and promoting his city's trade opportunities.

In an interview with NPR, he downplayed the recent awkward moments for Gov. Walker and Gov. Christie, saying every politician does that from time to time.

"I wouldn't presume to give anybody advice on avoiding gaffes since I've made so many myself," Johnson said with a laugh.

But he's less forgiving when he perceives a slight against his city. Romney learned that. So did Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was in London last month and described so-called "no-go" zones in the city that are supposedly controlled by Islamic extremists.

In response to the Louisiana governor's statement, Johnson said it's important, "in a gentle way, to offer some education to Gov. Jindal and anyone else who thinks there are no-go zones in London." There are none, he said, adding, "Come and see it and we'll be happy to show you."

Johnson then smiled, and extended a London invite to all Americans — including those arriving on campaign planes.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The road to the White House usually begins with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and a handful of other states that winnow the field. And these days, would-be presidents are also making early stops outside the U.S. to a city that's become a major draw for potential candidates, London. Brits welcome a chance for a sneak peek at possible candidates. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, that first encounter doesn't always go well.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It is a short hop across the Atlantic to Heathrow. You meet with British officials and business leaders, stop at 10 Downing Street, maybe a speech. On later trips, if you're officially in the race, you can raise a lot of campaign cash from a huge community of American ex-pats living in Great Britain. It seems easy enough, says Republican political strategist, Dennis Lennox.

DENNIS LENNOX: You should be able to hit it out of the ballpark in London.

GONYEA: And you can talk about the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain, he says.

LENNOX: But you still have to at least be prepared for the sorts of gotcha questions that the British press are famous for.

GONYEA: Which brings us to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who was in London this week on a trade missions for his state. Now Walker is not yet a candidate. No one is - officially, anyway. But he was treated like one. This is from an appearance at a British think tank where the moderator, BBC journalist Justin Webb, ended by asking him about evolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN WEBB: Do you - are comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you believe in it? Do you accept it?

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: (Laughter) For me, I'm going to punt on that one as well.

WEBB: No. Really?

WALKER: That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or the other.

GONYEA: Walker's punt got a lot of attention and not the kind he was looking for back in the U.S. and even in London. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a similar experience when he was in London last week and said parents need to have a choice when it comes to having their children vaccinated against the measles. He later clarified his remarks, stressing the need for vaccinations. But it was already the story of the trip. Of course, the benchmark for a bumpy campaign trip to London was set by Mitt Romney during 2012. He was there for the Summer Olympics and suggested the city might not be ready for the event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: You know, it's hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people.

GONYEA: That was from an interview on NBC News that prompted a mocking reaction from London Mayor Boris Johnson at a massive downtown London rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: I hear there's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're - whether we're ready. He wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready?

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: This morning, that same London mayor happened to be in Washington D.C. promoting his city's trade opportunities. He downplayed the recent awkward moments for Governors Walker and Christie, saying every politician does that from time to time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I wouldn't presume to give advice to anybody about how to avoid gaffs since I have made so many myself. I think it would be (laughter) - it would be really ridiculous.

GONYEA: But he's less forgiving when he perceives a slight against his city. Romney learned that. So did Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who was in London last month, and describes so-called no-go zones there, supposedly controlled by Islamic extremists. Mayor Johnson reacted to those comments this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I think it is important just to clarify that in a gentle way to offer some education to Governor Jindal or anybody else who thinks that there are no-go zones in London or other parts need to come and see it. And you'll - I'll - we'll be happy to show you.

GONYEA: Boris Johnson then smiles and extends a London invite to all Americans, including those arriving on campaign planes. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.