WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney, wrapping up a six-day international trip clouded by criticism, praised Polish "free enterprise" Tuesday as a model to help Europe solve its debt crisis.
"As some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to look to Poland," Romney said in a speech at the University of Warsaw.
The address, an effort by the Republican presidential candidate to refocus his message in the final hours of his three-country tour, cited Poland's opposition to "the false promise of a government-dominated economy" as an inspiration to Americans. The country's economy expanded 4.3 percent in 2011, among the fastest in the European Union.
Romney, who has refused to publicly discuss the criticism of his trip, has struggled to overcome a series of distractions that have undermined his foreign policy message. Even as he gave his speech Tuesday, television reporters were on camera live from Warsaw describing the gaffes and tensions with press.
Campaign aides shut down questions shouted by journalists earlier Tuesday as Romney visited a military memorial in the Polish capital.
"Shove it," press aide Rick Gorka told a reporter.
Romney aides insisted that the trip will have little impact on voters back home. While foreign travels are a good way to help candidates bulk up their resumes in preparation for the three presidential debates this fall, U.S. voters are far more concerned about the country's slow economic growth, said strategist Stuart Stevens.
"People understand that big elections are about big things," he said.
Monday, the former Massachusetts governor and private- equity executive was criticized by Palestinian officials for comments he made that suggested cultural reasons explained why Israel's economy outpaced that of the West Bank.
That firestorm followed one at the start of his trip, when Romney's questioning of Britain's readiness to manage the Olympic Games riled his hosts in London. He later clarified his remarks, explaining that it was hard to hold a mistake-free Olympics and that he was confident this year's would be a success.
Tuesday, Romney did not try to explain his remarks. Instead, he focused on his visit to Poland — the final stop of his tour, and the leg where he received the warmest reception.
In his speech, he subtly tried to link the Polish economy to the election at home.
"The world should pay close attention to the transformation of Poland's economy," Romney said. "A march toward economic liberty and smaller government has meant a march toward higher living standards, a strong military that defends liberty at home and abroad, and an important and growing role on the international stage."
Though he has vowed not to criticize the president while abroad, Romney frequently attacks President Barack Obama for mismanaging the economy.
"This is like a rally in the U.S.," said Romney's wife, Ann.
"I wish you to be successful," Walesa said through a translator. "Governor Romney — be successful!"
The Solidarity movement issued a statement after those remarks, essentially disavowing Walesa's personal endorsement and criticizing Romney's business career as marked by anti- union, anti-worker actions.
Romney has called Russia, Poland's historic enemy, America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" and accused Obama of a "sudden abandonment" of Poland because the president delayed — and then revived — plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
In his speech Tuesday, Romney criticized Russian leaders, saying their "once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered."
Poles, who see missile defense as a bulwark against a possible return of Russian aggression, had invested great effort in agreeing to the plan proposed by President George W. Bush. The White House announcement that it wouldn't move forward with the plan came on Sept. 17, 2009, 70 years to the day after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland two weeks after Nazi Germany attacked from the west.
Walesa told Poland's news station TVN24 that he was deeply disappointed.
"The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests, and they have used everyone else," Walesa said, according to Der Spiegel.
A month later, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would proceed with a smaller project in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, on the same basic schedule. There is lingering concern about the missile system because of uncertainty about U.S. defense budget cuts, said Fran Burwell, director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
Romney is trying to capitalize on those strains, as well as on concerns that a U.S. defense tilt toward Asia would reduce Eastern Europe's importance to Washington decision makers.
_ With assistance from Fadwa Hodali in Jerusalem, Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv and Nicole Gaouette in Washington.