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Romney rankles Olympic hosts during tour

LONDON -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday questioned whether Britain was prepared for the Olympic Games, and the negative response threatened to undermine his first international tour as the man who would replace Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama.

Romney wanted to highlight U.S.-British bonds — and show off his diplomatic skills — but he managed to rankle the Olympic hosts instead, from Prime Minister David Cameron on down.

Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, called London's problems with Olympic Games preparation “disconcerting.” That prompted Cameron to retort on Thursday that doubters would “see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson told tens of thousands gathered in Hyde Park: “There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we are ready. Are we ready?”

The crowd roared “yes!”

“Yes we are!” Johnson affirmed.

Amid the uproar, Romney tried to back off his critique, finally concluding, “I expect the games to be highly successful.”

Romney also caused a stir with his attendance at a fundraiser with banking executives tainted by a British interest rate-fixing scandal. And he inadvertently disclosed that he held a secret meeting with the head of Britain's intelligence service.

“I'm looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again,” Romney told donors at a fundraiser. Obama's administration sent back a bust of Churchill to Britain that once sat in the Oval Office. Obama aides say it was scheduled to be returned.

All in all, though, it was a shaky start to Romney's planned weeklong trip overseas that will include stops in Israel and Poland.

As he met with British leaders past and present — Romney met former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Minister William Hague and Finance Minister George Osborne on Thursday — Romney sought to keep the focus on the close alliance between America and Britain, praising “the unique relationship that exists between our nations, our commitment to common values, our commitment to peace in the world and a desire to see a stronger and growing economy.”

Unflattering Words on NBC

But he may have ended up straining his own relationship with the British — and embarrassing them — by questioning whether the country could host a flawless Olympics after years of preparation.

The country has faced steady media coverage of things that have gone wrong: A security firm didn't hire enough people; problems at immigration threatened security risks.

Shortly after arriving in London on Wednesday, Romney told NBC News that it was unclear whether issues that have dogged the final preparations could be overcome, saying: “It's hard to know just how well it will turn out.” He made the remark two days before the opening ceremonies and after his staff had attended the dress rehearsal for that show.

“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,” he said.

Britain has been forced to draft in 4,700 extra troops to make up a shortfall in the number of private guards supplied by a private security giant G4S.

And border officials on Wednesday called off a 24-hour walkout by immigration staff scheduled 24 hours later.

Romney even questioned the British Olympic spirit, adding: “Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? That's something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.”

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 Torch to visit power bases of London as tour reaches finale 
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney walks out of 10 Downing Street after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, Thursday, July 26, 2012. (AP)

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