President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney each used Monday night’s third and final debate to try to close the deal with a divided American electorate.
In a debate without any glaring gaffes and largely held in a more congenial tone than the combative encounter of last week, both men seemed to accomplish what they may have set out to do: Mr. Romney to come across as an acceptable commander in chief, Mr. Obama to portray a successful presidency while planting seeds of doubt about a challenger who recently has had the momentum.
While the debate’s theme was ostensibly foreign policy, both candidates time and again brought their answers back to the domestic economy, jobs, and who would do the better job of building an America for the 21st century.
“After a decade of war, I think we all recognize we have to do some nation-building at home,” Obama said more than once.
“I certainly don’t want to go back to the policies of the last four years,” Romney retorted. “It hasn’t worked.”
Within that common goal of steering the discussion to the economy, each candidate seemed to have a particular agenda for the evening. The president seemed intent on portraying his challenger as someone “all over the map,” who lacks the kind of resolve required of the commander in chief. “You keep trying to airbrush history,” Obama told Romney at one point. “Your strategy [on Libya] has been all over the map,” he said at another point.
Romney, on the other hand, seemed to have stepped onto the debate stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., determined to debunk the image of him – drawn from his own words, in some cases, as well as portrayals from the Obama camp – as a militarist itching to strike adversaries like Iran with a big stick.
“We can’t kill ourselves out of this mess,” Romney said, in explaining to moderator Bob Schieffer what he means when he says US foreign policy in the Middle East is “unraveling.”
Using the word “peace” so many times it became clear he was making a point, Romney even spoke positively of the United Nations and the need to work in cooperation with it.
Romney also appeared to take a lesson from the Karl Rove playbook – where rule No. 1 is, attack your opponents' strengths – when he acted to preempt what he figured would be Obama’s touting of the death of Osama bin Laden.
“We’re going to have to do more than killing bad guys,” Romney said in describing what he described as the Middle East’s backward slide under Obama’s foreign policy.
In one of Obama’s best moments, he explained why it was important to take out Mr. bin Laden. Noting that at one point in the past Romney said he would “not move heaven and earth” to get the Al Qaeda chief, Obama said, “It was worth moving heaven and earth to get bin Laden” because it sent a message to the world, including terrorists who would target America, and it provided the families of 9/11 victims with closure.
He then told the story, comforter-in-chief style, of a young woman, her father having perished in the World Trade Center attack, who told him what it meant to her that the perpetrator of the crime had been served justice.
Surprisingly, the debate did not continue the who-did-what-when on the Benghazi consulate attack that figured so prominently in the last debate. Indeed, on many issues – the Afghanistan war, getting tough on China and its trade policies, stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, strengthening bonds with Israel – the two candidates seemed to agree more than to disagree.
On Syria, Romney tried to make the case that he would address the “tragedy” there without “having our military involved.” But after Romney described what he would do – like work closely with allies in the region and help develop a coherent armed opposition – Obama retorted: “He doesn’t have different ideas because we’re doing what we should be doing.”
Both men spoke of the importance of American leadership, and the role that soft-power goals like empowering women play in ultimately delivering the safer and more prosperous world that is in America’s interests.
Polls show that both nationally and in key battleground states, Americans place foreign policy well down on their list of priorities for this presidential election. As a result, it is likely that many voters watched the debate more to judge each candidate on broad qualities like leadership and vision than to score them on policy specifics of Syria or Pakistan.