Over the course of three presidential debates, Republican Mitt Romney succeeded in defying Democratic attacks—and overcoming his own past missteps—that had threatened to disqualify him as a reasonable choice for voters weary of President Obama.
Portrayed for weeks as a warmonger, and compared unfavorably to President George W. Bush, with his two unpopular wars, Romney in the debates showed stronger interest in diplomacy and using military action only as a last resort. Mocked as a buffoon on the international stage, Romney was fluent and gaffe-free.
Yet as in the second debate, Obama in Monday night's face-off on foreign policy was the more frequent and more strident aggressor, racking up twice as many points if anyone had been keeping score. After weeks of hammering Obama over his response to the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, which killed four Americans, Romney never threw a punch in that direction. What’s more, he found himself agreeing with the president and praising his record more than he probably would have liked. He acknowledged that economic sanctions against Iran are “working” and congratulated him on the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
“There have been times during the campaign where you said that you would do the same things as we did, but you would say it louder,” Obama said.
Frankly, he had a point. Plus, he got to shoot down Romney’s frequent accusation of an “apology tour” through the Middle East as a “whopper.”
So where does that leave the race? Probably looking more than ever like a coin toss with a smidge of advantage for the sitting president. Momentum is far more important than television ads at this stage, but without a brutal knockdown or embarrassing misstep, the impact of the third debate is likely to fade as the election hinges on which campaign can get more of its supporters to the polls.
The president built a strong case for his reelection in the second and third debates, although he came across as a little eager to pick fights in Monday’s debate. Romney certainly dominated the first debate and held his own in the second and third matchups, but he missed opportunities to land blows.
Possibly still compensating for his languid performance in the first debate, Obama at the beginning of the third debate charged at Romney and didn’t let up. At the risk of appearing unstatesmanlike, he verged into snark and sarcasm. “The 1980s are calling and asking for their foreign policy back,” Obama quipped, referring to Romney’s remark a few months ago calling Russia the United States' “greatest geopolitical foe.” “I know you haven’t been in position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong,” Obama added. Accusing Romney of not understanding the military’s capabilities, he said, “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.... This is not a game of Battleship where we are counting ships.”
But the president was playing political gamesmanship to the hilt. The palpable hostility between the two candidates seated close together at a table was uncomfortable, but Romney stayed calm as if to show he would do the same as president in an international crisis. “Attacking me is not an agenda,” he said, a line he repeated later in the debate.
Where Obama ran hot, Romney stayed cool. After months of saber-rattling, Romney said he wanted to pursue a sweeping, nonviolent strategy that would lead the Middle East to reject extremism. He talked of foreign aid and education and promoting women’s rights. “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan,” Romney said, deferring to the public’s widespread disapproval of those protracted conflicts. He spoke of pursuing friendships with leaders who could replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad so as not to be drawn into a military conflict. “We want a peaceful planet,” Romney said.
He was more critical of the president on Israel, describing “unfortunate tension” and insisting that Iran was getting closer to building a nuclear weapon. Obama met the criticism bristling with confidence and offered assurances that that would not happen on his watch.
The one time Romney seemed to lose his balance on Monday night was when he was asked to explain how he plans to pay for a bigger military. “I’d be happy to have you take a look. Come on our website,” a frustrated Romney told moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
Obama, always poised for confrontation, wouldn’t let that go. “And you know, we visited the website quite a bit and it still doesn’t work,” he said.
Less than half an hour into the third debate, Romney sought to turn the conversation toward Obama’s bigger liability, the economy. “America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home,” he said. Romney could have been talking about the country’s dimmed enthusiasm for the president since his 2008 election, when he described changing expectations toward the Arab Spring. “We’re seeing a pretty dramatic reversal in the hopes we had for that region,” he said.
That widespread disappointment amid a sluggish economy remains Romney’s strongest weapon against the president. It was not often at his disposal in a debate on foreign policy that allowed the president to boast of some of his biggest successes.