How President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to attack each other in tonight's foreign-policy-focused face-off, and how it could affect the campaign
In many ways, we've already had the presidential debate on foreign policy. Substantial portions of the vice-presidential debate Oct. 11 and the second presidential debate last week were devoted to international topics.
Last week, President Obama's dry "get the transcript" -- and the moderator's real-time fact-checking -- took the wind out of Mitt Romney's attempt to attack the administration's portrayal of the Benghazi attack. And the week before, Vice President Biden was merciless in his portrayal of the Romney-Ryan foreign policy as empty tough talk. "You're going to go to war?" Biden practically taunted Paul Ryan at one point. "Is that what you want to do now?"
Thus, the lines of battle are clearly set for the candidates' final faceoff, set to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer. Romney will go after Obama for weak leadership, with an emphasis on Israel, Iran, and the current turmoil in the Mideast. Obama will seek to paint Romney as a reckless, inexperienced warmonger who will bring back unpopular Bush administration policies. And, as the president joked at a dinner in New York City last week: "Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden."
The last debate also comes against the backdrop of a presidential horse-race in which Romney has surged and Obama's lead has shrunk. Here are a few things to watch for.
Romney's Achilles heel: Foreign affairs has always been a weakness for the Republican, and not just because Obama, by winding down two unpopular wars and nabbing bin Laden, has made it one of his greatest strengths. From a summer foreign trip filled with mishaps to his widely criticized knee-jerk reaction to the events of this Sept. 11 to his flub in the last debate, Romney has consistently erred when it comes to foreign affairs, in ways that call into question not just his stances on these issues but his commander-in-chief chops. Luckily for him, foreign policy is far from the top of most voters' minds this election. But for those who place a priority on such things, this debate is the Republican's last chance to look serious and knowledgeable on international issues. As Matt Bennett, a former Bill Clinton adviser now with the Democratic think-tank Third Way, told Politico, "So far, Romney is batting zero when it comes to landing a punch on foreign policy or national security."
The case against Obama: In addition to his foreign policy-focused book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney has given multiple internationally focused addresses this campaign season, foreshadowing the lines he'll likely take against the president at the debate. His general critique is that Obama has taken an overly deferential, insufficiently assertive stance toward the rest of the world, failing to adequately support American allies or confront American enemies. Too often, he says, Obama has allowed the U.S. to be at the mercy of world events rather than in a position to shape them. In particular, he accuses Obama of not being sufficiently friendly to Israel, of not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, of weakening the military with spending cuts, and of failing to take a tougher stance toward Chinese economic abuses. On the current Mideast turmoil, Romney accuses the president of covering up security and intelligence lapses that allowed American installations to be attacked by blaming them on spontaneous eruptions of anti-American sentiment rather than terrorism. But as with so many foreign issues, Romney's bungling of details has obscured his larger case. In last week's debate, he seemed to think he had trapped Obama: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration. Is that what you're saying?" Obama replied dryly, "Please proceed, Governor," leaving Romney flummoxed when moderator Candy Crowley corrected him. In fact, Obama had used the phrase "acts of terror" in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden speech -- but he also continued to point to an American-made anti-Muslim video as the spark for the attacks for several more weeks. (For more, see Jeffrey Goldberg's questions for Obama).
The case against Romney: Like most other Republicans, Romney bears the burden of the Bush foreign policy legacy as well as the GOP's ongoing confusion about international issues. In the larger debate over neoconservatism vs. pragmatism, there have been multiple reports of feuding among Romney's diverse stable of foreign advisers, with the candidate most often seeming to side with the former camp. The other major critique of Romney's stances on foreign issues has been that he's not really advocating much in the way of different policy from Obama -- it's more a matter of tone than substance. In the VP debate, Biden deftly exploited both of these critiques, alternately battering Ryan for calling for measures the administration has already taken, like tough Iran sanctions, and painting him as a throwback to Bush's warmongering. You can expect to hear Obama note, as he does in his stump speech and in a new ad, that Romney called the Iraq pullout "tragic" and the Afghanistan drawdown the president's "biggest mistake."
The tiebreaker debate? It's not quite accurate to say that, since Romney and Obama have each won one debate, this one is the tiebreaker. Romney's win in the first debate was an blowout, while Obama's performance in the second was a technical victory at best. The combined result of those two debates has been a net negative for Obama: He's gone from wide leads in the late-September polls to tied or even behind in many national and swing-state surveys today. People have been paying close attention to the debates -- more than 65 million watched each of the first two -- so a real rout for either candidate could once again send the polls careening in a new direction. But if that doesn't happen, the campaign will enter its final two-week stretch in a virtual deadlock.