Third Presidential Debate: Last Best Chance to Show Vision, Likability, Command

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar over energy policy during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y.  (National Journal)

Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate decisively, while President Obama rebounded two weeks later with a narrow victory. That leaves Monday's third and final faceoff — one ostensibly set to focus on foreign policy — as the tiebreaker. And in a razor-tight race, the winner could very well go on to claim the White House. Here are the stakes:

LAST CHANCE WITH BIG AUDIENCE. The first presidential debate attracted about 67.2 million viewers and the second drew 65.6 million, according to Nielsen ratings. Though it centers on a subject of less interest to voters, the third debate will be seen by tens of millions of people. It will be both candidates' last chance to make their final appeal with so many Americans watching at once.

The pressure to deliver a solid performance is high. After the showdown at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., there are no more do-overs left, and neither candidate will want to leave a bad final impression. Despite the foreign-policy frame, look for Romney and Obama to use their time to make overtures to key demographics — chief among them women, who are shaping up to be the campaign season's most sought after bloc.

COMMANDER IN CHIEF CREDENTIALS. Obama was able to erase a decades-long perception that Republicans were stronger in the national-security arena when he announced last year that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid carried out at his command. The successful assassination of the al-Qaida leader and Obama's other foreign-policy successes have been bright spots in a campaign fighting against what was until recently a tide of dour economic news.

Nonetheless, Obama and his administration were shaken by the killing of four Americans in Libya and recent polls have shown Obama's once-formidable edge on foreign policy slowly slipping away. According to an Oct. 18 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of Americans said they trust Obama on such matters, while 43 percent favored Romney.

At the debate, Obama will likely highlight his decision to go after bin Laden and emphasize that he's already proven himself a successful commander in chief. He'll want to do it tastefully though — the campaign's aggressive push on that front elicited criticism in some quarters for striking an overly celebratory tone in dealing with matters of war.

LIBYA REDUX. Romney and Obama's tense exchange about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, and the White House's response to it, was probably the most important moment of the second presidential debate. And the president, who lectured Romney about politicizing the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other diplomatic officials, clearly won the showdown.

Obama's rhetorical victory begs the question of whether Romney will once again wade aggressively into this fight. A foreign-policy debate will undoubtedly focus on it, more so even than the previous two, but Romney could let debate moderator Bob Schieffer lead the inquisition this time. A softer approach, however, would disappoint conservatives, who still think the deadly attack is a sore spot for the president and needs to be brought to voters' attention. The way both candidates handle the issue in the debate will offer a preview of how the Libya attacks will play out in the last two weeks of the race.

VISION. After months of crisscrossing the country, millions of dollars in ads, and two presidential debates, a common refrain among voters — especially those who remain undecided — is that they still don't know what a first Romney administration or a second Obama term would look like, or what it would mean for them. Part of the problem is the relentless back-and-forth of often misleading attacks and counterattacks. This is both candidates' last best chance to leave voters with forward-looking details they can take home, beyond finger-pointing and in-the-weeds squabbling about their tax plans.

CAN ANYONE BE NICE? Romney and Obama didn't win points for political decorum last week. They interrupted each other, invaded the other's personal space, and made it plainly obvious their animosity was personal as much as political. More than one pundit observed that in any other setting, the two men would have looked as if they were ready to throw a punch.

It was a problem: Voters, especially the moderates and independents so coveted by both campaigns, didn't like the tone. Neither man was more obstreperous than the other, so the net political effect so far has been a wash. But if either candidate finds a way to rise above the fray, the political gain could be significant.

For Romney in particular, that would mean finally letting go of his obsession with the rules of the debate. The battle of favorability has long favored Obama, but recent polls show Romney erasing the once yawning gap. Their performances on Monday could determine which candidate heads toward Election Day as more likable — and since 1984, likability has been a key indicator of who will win.

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