Two months ago, a debate about foreign policy between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was widely considered a layup for the president. After all, he’s the incumbent who ordered the risky and successful raid on Osama bin Laden, has presided over the drawdown of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has shown a level of ferocity against terrorists that has confounded his supporters and detractors alike.
Romney is a wealthy private-equity executive with just four years of governing experience at the state level.
The October surprise of this election, then, is that the race is tied nationally among likely voters (47% to 47%, according to NBC), and Americans have increasingly seen Romney as a plausible commander-in-chief. The task for Obama is to make the debate all about his accomplishments and communicate to the electorate that they can continue to trust him with the nation’s security.
Romney needs to confirm his newfound reputation of competence in foreign policy and avoid making a major mistake.
Tonight’s debate is the last time the two candidates will meet face-to-face before Election Day in just two weeks. While both would prefer to talk more about the economy and the middle class at this late stage, they’ll be constrained by the subject and the moderator.
Here are a few of the topics up for discussion in Florida this evening and some idea of how the candidates might handle them.
Bob Schieffer, the moderator, is certain to ask the candidates about the Benghazi consulate attacks. Obama will likely maintain his position that his administration did not communicate a false narrative about what happened. Rather, any ambiguity or confusion that emerged in the weeks following the September 11, 2012, attacks stemmed from the expected fog of a violent crisis.
Romney will try again to sow doubt in the minds of voters about whether the Obama administration engaged in a major coverup or manipulated the story for political gain.
The Libya segment in last week’s town hall debate proved to be one of Obama’s strongest moments. Romney will attempt to reverse momentum on this story tonight without appearing small-minded or overly political. A tall order for sure.
The New York Times ran a story over the weekend that claimed the U.S. and Iran have agreed to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. While the Obama administration has formally denied the story, Schieffer is likely to ask for more details.
The Iran situation poses more of a problem for Romney than Obama. Romney needs to keep the far-right wing of his base convinced that he’s a hawk without alienating war-weary centrist voters, particularly women.
Vice President Joe Biden did an excellent job of pushing GOP veep nominee Paul Ryan on the central question of what a Romney/Ryan administration would do differently on Iran. Obama may try to force Romney to suggest that a Republican in the White House would be eager to start another regional war in the Middle East. If Romney admits that he’s as reticent to use force against Iran as Obama, the differences between the two men on this issue will not be obvious.
One issue in tonight’s debate will be on the rise of China’s economy. Romney has already been vocal about his plan to label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office. The rationale behind this plan and the implications of it are likely confuse the average voter. It will be difficult for Romney to make the case for the importance of calling out China on its currency without appearing overly wonkish.
In every other exchange on the China question, Obama has used the opportunity to point out Romney’s extensive dealings in that country and support for outsourcing. Of all the topics in tonight’s debate, China will be the one that poses the best opportunity for the candidates to bring the conversation back around to the economy.
Other topics on the docket are “America’s role in the world” and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much of this has already been covered by the candidates on the stump and at previous debates. Tonight will be an opportunity for them both to expand their arguments and provide details.
Unfortunately, 90 minutes of debate time constrict the topics up for discussion. Europe’s debt crisis and climate change are two critical areas of foreign policy that may get the short shrift tonight.
We will see in coming days whether an airing of foreign policy visions and strategy will move the needle in what has become a nail-biter of a campaign.
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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