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Monday, July 30, 2012

A Trip to Poland, With an Eye on Swing States


Mitt Romney's arrival in Poland on Monday provides an opportunity for the Republican candidate to embrace the ideals and values of one of America's closest allies in front of a global audience.

His campaign hopes they are watching in the Rust Belt.

Mr. Romney arrived in Gdansk for the start of two days of talks with Polish leaders, to be capped off by remarks from Warsaw on Tuesday. Aides have signaled that he will focus on the relationship between the two countries and strategic concerns about Russia.

But at home - where votes count - the trip's imagery may be more important than the specifics of Mr. Romney's policy pronouncements.

Polish voters make up large chunks of the electorate in several swing states that Mr. Romney must win if he wants to capture the White House in November. His campaign is clearly hoping that the high-profile visit this week will help woo those vot ers.

The two states with the largest number of Polish-Americans are out of reach for Mr. Romney: New York and Illinois, which together have close to two million Polish-Americans, will be firmly in the Democratic column in November. (The single biggest Polish-American population center? Chicago - President Obama's home town.)

But millions of Polish-Americans call Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin home. And those are three key states for Mr. Romney.

In some small towns in those three states, as many as half or more of the residents say they have Polish ancestry. Mr. Romney is hoping that a visit to Poland - and a warm embrace by Lech Walesa, the former Polish president - will help him capture a higher percentage of those voters.

Mr. Walesa, who has had a chilly relationship with Mr. Obama, effectively endorsed Mr. Romney during their meeting on Monday.

“I wish you to be successful because this success is needed to the United States, of course , but to Europe and the rest of the world, too,” Mr. Walesa said to Mr. Romney during a photo-op after private discussions. “Governor Romney, get your success - be successful!”

Mr. Romney is also hoping to capitalize on anger among some Poles toward Mr. Obama. In 2009, as part of his “reset” in relations with Russia, the president decided against a missile defense system based partly in Poland. And in May of this year, Mr. Obama offended some Poles and Polish-Americans by referring to “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi death camps” during a ceremony at the White House.

Winning the Polish vote may not be that easy for Mr. Romney, however.

Polish-Americans do not vote in a block. A survey by the Piast Institute, which studies Polish-American affairs, found that 36 percent of Polish-Americans identified as Democrats. Thirty-three percent said they were independents. And just 26 percent said they were Republicans.

In a demographic sur vey in 2008 by the institute, 52 percent of Polish-Americans voted for Mr. Obama, while just 42 percent voted for Senator John McCain of Arizona.

However, the institute also noted that 44 percent of Polish-Americans say they are conservative. “It is not unreasonable to conclude that many Polish-American Democrats tend to be in the more conservative wing of the party,” the group said.

Can Mr. Romney tap into some of those voters to win the Polish-American vote in November? And if he does, will it help him win some of those battleground states?

In the latest polls, Mr. Obama has been leading Mr. Romney in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. To win there, Mr. Romney will have to do more than just win over a few more Polish-Americans.

On the other hand, Mr. Romney's team knows that the contests in those states could easily narrow as election day nears, especially if the economy continues to struggle over the next several months.

In that case, every vote will count - something that Mr. Romney will no doubt be thinking of as he delivers his remarks in Warsaw on Tuesday.

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.