* Republican in Poland on final leg of foreign tour

* Romney says Poland a beacon of free market, democracy

* He dodges questions about gaffe-strewn tour

By Steve Holland

WARSAW, July 31 (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney held up Poland's transition from Communism to democracy as an example for the rest of the world while saying on Tuesday that Russia had faltered on the path to freedom.

Romney was speaking in the Polish capital at the end of a three-country foreign tour that also took him to Britain and Israel. The trip was supposed to show voters back home that the Republican could serve on the world stage just as well as President Barack Obama, but it has been marked by gaffes and missteps.

In a speech in the library of Warsaw University, Romney evoked Poland's struggles two decades ago to bring down the Iron Curtain and praised its efforts s i nce then to embrace small government and a market economy - the same model he says is needed to revive spluttering U.S. growth.

"In the 1980s, when other nations doubted that political tyranny could ever be faced down or overcome, the answer was, 'Look to Poland'," Romney said. "And today, as some wonder about the way forward out of economic recession and fiscal crisis, the answer is to 'Look to Poland' once again."

Romney's comments on Russia will resonate in Poland, which has a history of occupation by its eastern neighbour and has looked to the United States as a friendly counterweight to the Kremlin's influence.

"Unfortunately, there are parts of the world today where the desire to be free is met with brutal oppression," Romney said, listing the Moscow-allied state of Belarus, the Syrian leadership, and Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez.

"And in Russia, once-promising advances toward a free and open society have faltered," he said.

Romney has previously said that Russia is "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe".


Romney has pledged not to criticise his Democratic rival for the presidency from foreign soil, but his comments in Poland - as during the Israel leg of his tour - appeared designed to highlight differences in the candidates' approach to foreign policy.

Obama has put emphasis on a "re-set" in the previously fraught relations with the Kremlin. Some in Poland felt Washington was overlooking its long-standing alliance with Warsaw for the sake of a better relationship with Russia.

Alluding to the trade union movement Solidarity, which helped topple Communist rule, Romney said: "I believe it is critical to stand by those who have stood by America. Solidarity was a great movement that freed a nation. And it is with solidarity that America and Poland face the future."

Solidarity on Monday distanced itself from Romney's visit to Poland, saying he had supported attacks on unions in his own country.

Romney has run a fairly smooth campaign in the United States by sticking closely to a message that the U.S. economy under Obama has faltered with 8.2 percent unemployment.

Abroad, however, he has suffered a series of problems that drew criticism from the Obama camp that he was not ready to be U.S. commander in chief.

On the first leg of his trip, in London, the former governor of the U.S. state of Massachusetts drew howls of derision from the British press after questioning whether the city was ready to host the Olympics.

On the next stopover in Israel, he angered Palestinian leaders by calling Jerusalem the Israeli capital and saying cultural differences made Israel more successful economically than the Palestinians.

In Poland on Tuesday, he studiously avoided making any off-the-cuff comments to the media. Romney stuck closely to his message, going from meeting to meeting with Polish officials and thanking them for Polish contributions to the U.S.-led war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, reporters frustrated at a lack of access to him during this trip shouted questions about his missteps.

"Governor Romney, are you concerned about some of the mishaps on your trip?" shouted one.

"Governor Romney do you have a statement for the Palestinians?" shouted another.

Romney ignored the questions and strode back to his motorcade vehicle as an aide admonished members of the press. "Shove it," the aide, Rick Gorka, told reporters.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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