British leader takes offense at Romney words, slams Salt Lake City Olympics
Politics • Salt Lake City mayor responds by extending an invitation to the British premier.
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Washington • It's not often that Salt Lake City finds itself at the center of an international conflict — and on the pointy end of a jab from a foreign leader.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — who headed up the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — questioned London's ability to handle the Summer Games that started this week, prompting a retort from British Prime Minister David Cameron about Utah's capital being in the "middle of nowhere."

Romney got the back-and-forth going by telling NBC News: "The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging."

Cameron was happy to respond with his own insult about the work Romney did with the Salt Lake Games.

"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," Cameron told reporters in London.

It wasn't the most stellar moment for Romney, whose campaign had hoped the London Olympics would provide a stage for the candidate to remind American voters of his success in turning around and leading the Salt Lake Games 10 years ago.

And Romney's off-the-cuff remarks didn't much help the trip's objective of boosting his foreign policy credentials.

"If Romney's goal of this trip is to show he's good at diplomacy and promoting U.S. interests, this is a lousy way to show it," said Thad Hall, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah.

Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush's re-election campaign, also flashed a thumb's down.

"Romney went across the pond meaning to stick his toe in some foreign policy and instead stuck his foot in his mouth," says McKinnon. "Not an auspicious beginning to his trip."

On the other hand, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker saw the humor in being dragged into the rhetorical spat.

"I would welcome Prime Minister Cameron to come to Salt Lake City," Becker said. "We would treat him royally and show him what the middle of nowhere looks like."

Becker said he thinks the back-and-forth between Cameron and Romney is a "little silly" but that Salt Lake City residents know very well the difficulties in putting on such a large gathering as the Olympics and it's fine if Cameron hasn't had the chance to pull out his globe and pinpoint Utah.

Hall saw that as saavy politics on Becker's part, perhaps using the incident to promote tourism and exports to Great Britain. It could, he noted, help put Utah on the map.

tburr@sltrib.com