Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
will soon do something Barack Obama has yet to do as president - visit US ally Israel, where he will try to present himself to voters back home as a credible replacement to Obama on the world stage.
In the midst of a presidential campaign that is too close to call, Romney leaves on Wednesday for a week-long trip to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics
in London and visit Israel
Israel is the most delicate diplomatic stop for Romney, with Syria
in turmoil after a bomb attack in Damascus killed the defense minister, and Israeli tensions with Iran rising after a bus bomb in Bulgaria
killed five Israeli tourists and prompted Israel to blame Tehran.
Romney's visit presents him the opportunity to appeal to both Jewish voters and pro-Israel evangelical
voters and contrast himself with the Democratic incumbent Obama, who has a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But it also offers some risks as Romney, a relative novice in foreign policy, may be asked whether he would go to war to halt Iran's
nuclear program, a top concern of Israel, and whether he would get the United States involved in the bloody turmoil in neighboring Syria, where President Bashar Assad
is under siege from rebels.
Romney has sharply criticized
Obama's handling of Iran and adamantly declared he would not allow it to possess a nuclear weapon, which Tehran denies seeking. Romney has said that "ultimately, regime change is what's going to be necessary."
This has left him open to questions over whether he would launch a military operation against Iran at a time when Americans are weary of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq begun by the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
"That's the key consideration," said Martin Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the book, "Bending History: Barack Obama's foreign policy."
"On the one hand Romney wants to be able to criticize Obama as being weak on Iran, but I don't think he wants to portray himself as eager for a conflict with Iran. So I think he's walking between the raindrops to try to score Obama without creating the impression that he's keen for another war in the Middle East," Indyk said.
"The focus of the trip really is about learning, listening ... and it's about continuing to project Governor Romney's strong view that America needs to stand by its allies, particularly allies that are under siege, like Israel," said Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Jerusalem in May and heard complaints from the Israeli leadership about the current state of the US-Israeli relationship, a source familiar with her meetings said.
It has not gone unnoticed there that the Democratic president has not visited Israel, although he has sent some ranking officials there, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"It's not a trivial issue that Obama has not been to Israel during his presidency," said Michael Goldfarb, a Republican foreign policy expert. "Of course he went as a candidate, but he ran as a pro-Israeli figure and in office has not lived up to his promises."
Romney, who says Obama has proposed Israel adopt "indefensible borders," has known Netanyahu since the 1970s when they both worked briefly at the Boston Consulting Group. Romney also plans to meet Palestinian leaders.
While American Jewish voters overwhelmingly support Democrats,
Romney's strong pro-Israeli stance could help him cut into Obama's dominance with this voting bloc, which could make a difference in a battleground state like Florida.
Perhaps more importantly, the Israel trip could energize staunchly pro-Israel evangelical conservatives who have been suspicious of Romney - a Mormon who has a history of being moderate - and had searched for an alternative during the Republican primary battle.