The history books have closed on the presidential debates, and the two-week sprint is on to Election Day in a race that is a virtual dead heat.
Monday night’s third and final debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney focused on foreign policy, but the candidates’ forays into domestic affairs reflected two truths about the 2012 race: that voters see the US economy as by far the most important election issue, and that, when push comes to shove, presidents face limited realistic options in carrying out foreign policy.
In the main, the two men’s differences centered more on style than on substance. As he did in last week’s debate, Mr. Obama came out aggressively against Mr. Romney, displaying once again the spark that was missing in the first debate. He sought to portray Romney as a neophyte on foreign affairs with pronouncements that are either outdated or inconsistent.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the cold war's been over for 20 years,” Obama said sarcastically, referring to Romney’s past assertion that Russia represents America’s “top geopolitical foe.”
Romney needed simply to clear the bar as credible on foreign policy if not equal to the president, who has lived the issues for four years. And he often avoided open conflict with the president by playing down differences as much as he sought to create contrasts. He concurred with Obama’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, go after terrorists with drones, and refrain from intervening militarily in Syria.
Inexplicably to many observers, Romney also opted not to press Obama on last month’s deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a security lapse that has dogged the administration. Romney got slapped down in the last debate over the issue, some say because he (and the moderator) mishandled what should have been a strong criticism of Obama's handling of the crisis.
But he suggested Obama had failed on Iran, calling it “the greatest threat of all ... four years closer to a nuclear weapon.”
Romney also sought to allay concerns that he might be spoiling for war, saying that the US mission in the Middle East – and more broadly, the planet – is to ensure peace. (Women voters in particular, a cohort where Romney has made recent gains in polls, are turned off by saber-rattling.) Then he pivoted to his strong suit as a candidate, the economy.
“[F]or us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger,” said the former Massachusetts governor.
Obama went after Romney on the “strength” issue by criticizing him for calling for $2 trillion in additional military spending and a bigger Navy.
To Romney’s assertion that the Navy is smaller than at any time since 1917, Obama quipped, “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed.”
“So the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships,” Obama added. Still, the comparison of ships to horses and bayonets won't help him win the military vote in the battleground state of Virginia, home to the world's largest naval base.
But the candidates agree on the core issue of linking a stronger US economy to the nation’s ability to project power overseas. That led into a discussion of nationbuilding at home, including education policy. When the candidates began arguing about Romney’s record on education in Massachusetts, debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS nudged them back to the prescribed focus of the debate.
“Let me get back to foreign policy,” he said.
In the spin room afterward, aides to both candidates declared confidently their bosses had won the showdown, and were on their way to victory in two weeks. For Romney, who eliminated his deficit in national polls with Obama after the first debate and maintained it after the second, the key is to close the gap in a handful of tossup states, most important among them Ohio.
“I think the momentum continues tonight,” said Ed Gillespie, a top Romney adviser. “As we’ve seen, as the American people see Mitt Romney directly for themselves and they hear him talk about his own positions, not the snippets on newscasts ... they see he clearly has the capacity to be commander in chief, he has a plan to make us stronger economically at home.”
During the debate, Obama made his usual bow to the Midwest battleground in bringing up his intervention to save the auto industry. Obama’s advisers pointed to the exchange on the issue as a boon to the president.
“I must say, that long, sort of uncomfortable segment on the auto bailout tonight certainly isn’t going to help Governor Romney in Michigan,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist.
Still, it’s Ohio – where 1 in 8 jobs is tied to the auto industry – where the auto message is most crucial.
Obama brought up Ohio directly, in relation to a recent decision by the World Trade Organization to bar China from placing duties on certain US steel exports.
“Just recently,” Obama said, “steelworkers in Ohio and throughout the Midwest, Pennsylvania, are in a position now to sell steel to China, because we won that case.”