Mitt Romney’s toughest debate
By: Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen
October 21, 2012 07:27 PM EDT
Mitt Romney has a clear-eyed and self-aware view of his chances in the final debate Monday, according to top advisers: It will be almost impossible to win, since the debate is focused exclusively on foreign policy, a strength for President Barack Obama.
This view isn’t merely about expectations-setting. Romney’s top advisers authentically worry that the swing voters they need to woo care little about foreign affairs right now. And, even if they did, the differences between the two men on many of the highest-profile issues — ending the Afghan war and the bloodshed in Syria — are too slight to draw sharp distinctions.
Even if Romney does bring his A game, Obama joked last week about his debate strategy for winning the showdown in Florida: “Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden.” It’s not a joke that he said it, or that he uses that conquest to maximum political advantage in debates and speeches to show strength and achievement.
The Romney campaign sees this debate – to be moderated by Bob Schieffer on Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla. — as the last chance to move the needle in any significant way in the swing states that will decide the election. Aides head into it more confident about winning the race than they did before the first presidential debate, but believing Obama is slightly better positioned in the states that will dictate the outcome. The hope inside the campaign is that Romney will emerge in no worse position, advisers said.
“The debates have not so much fundamentally changed the race as they have returned it to where it was before the Democratic convention,” said Vin Weber, the Romney campaign’s special adviser on policy. “The candidates are close, and the economy is the Number One issue. Foreign policy is really important, but it is not driving this election.”
A top Republican official put it more bluntly: “I don’t think there are a lot of soft voters who are waiting to hear a position on the Eurozone.”
This could be a problem for Romney because another strong debate performance could be the difference-maker for him. Interestingly, in private conversations, the two campaigns agree on the state of the race as of this weekend: Obama has the edge right now because it appears he’s up, albeit narrowly, throughout the Midwest: Iowa, Wisconsin and, most importantly, Ohio. A Midwest swing-state sweep makes it almost impossible to chart a Romney win.
At the same time, Romney is doing better than ever in Florida, is a slight favorite in Colorado and is back to near-even in Virginia, giving substantially more hope than on the eve of the first debate, which he won decisively.
Romney knows foreign policy is not his strength, aides said. Throughout the race — starting with his proclamation that Russia is the biggest strategic threat to the U.S., through his bumpy Europe trip, and ending with his politicized statement moments after the Libya killings and clumsy exchange about that terrorist attack in the last debate — Romney has not been at his best when trying to add a global dimension to his campaign.
“So far, Romney is batting zero when it comes to landing a punch on foreign policy or national security,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a Democratic-leaning think tank that advocates “a tough and centrist security strategy.”
“He has whiffed in every single at-bat, and there’s no evidence he can do any better when he’s doing it for 90 minutes,” Bennett added. “It’s just more opportunity for him to get boxed in like he did in the second debate, or sound out of touch like he did in the post-Libya press conference, or make a gaffe like he did on his foreign trip.”
Romney has spent scores of hours in private briefings with his national security team, studying the issues and thinking out his positions. But his campaign was designed for a war over the economy. He has little foreign policy experience and his running mate Paul Ryan has even less. Making matters worse, many of the foreign policy giants in the GOP – Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush — carry the PR burden of having started two unpopular wars.
Obama, by comparison, was no better prepared on foreign policy coming into office than Bush. But four years in, he has ended the Iraq war, killed a number of leading terrorists and detailed a plan for getting out of Afghanistan. It would be easy to make a sharp argument that Obama has been too aggressive in using drones to kill terrorists, and sometimes innocent civilians, or too slow or too fast to stake a 2014 end in Afghanistan. But Romney essentially agrees with Obama on these two major issues.
Therein lies the big challenge for Romney: His vision isn’t dramatically different than Obama’s on foreign policy. They both want to continue aggressive terrorist-killing policies, prevent a nuclear Iran, stop the atrocities in Syria without committing U.S. troops and essentially maintain the status quo in Iraq.
Both candidates want to distort the reality that on the big issues of the day, there is a lot of commonality: Obama over four years has shifted to what amounts to the Bush view of aggressive anti-terrorism policies, while Romney and Republicans have shifted the Democrats’ way on getting out of the two biggest wars of this young century. Both candidates are uncertain — and less specific about — how to handle the new spike in Middle East turmoil.
The vice presidential debate provided a glimpse into the challenge of arguing distinctions without big differences. Taking on the Iraq question, Ryan said, “[W]e had the same position before the withdrawal [of U.S. troops], which was we agreed with the Obama administration,” before blaming the White House for not cementing a status-of-forces agreement.
Moments later, Ryan turned to Afghanistan, saying: “With respect to Afghanistan and the 2014 deadline, we agree with a 2014 transition,” the date set by the White House.
When the topic turned to Iran, Ryan hammered Vice President Joe Biden for not slapping tougher sanctions on the regime earlier, but offered scant detail on how a Republican White House would do things differently going forward to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Biden shot back: “How are they going to prevent war if they say there’s nothing more we … should do than we have already done?”
Romney’s plan will be to highlight Obama’s equivocal support for Israel’s right to act as bellicose as it sees fit to prevent nuclear weapons next door. But again, the debate will be over where – not whether — to draw a red line for green-lighting attacks to take out nuclear capabilities.
In September, Romney told ABC News that his red line was the same as Obama’s. But he has since suggested, vaguely, that it might be different. Regardless, this is hardly a war-versus-peace debate.
Obama, no doubt, is vulnerable on many issues overseas, including the shifting explanations for what caused the killings of the American diplomats in Libya. Initially, the White House blamed a crude copy of an anti-Muslim video, before ultimately faulting organized terrorists exploiting softer-than-we-should-have-had security at the embassy there.
Romney has botched two opportunities to turn the knife on this issue: First, by rushing out a statement before details of the Libyan carnage were known, drawing fire to the Republican ticket and away from the White House. Then at the second debate, the president got another pass because of Romney’s unsure grasp of what the president had said about a possible terrorist connection.
The president’s taunt, “Please proceed, Governor” (as Romney stepped into the trap over exactly was Obama had said in the aftermath of the attack), followed by, “Get the transcript,” are two of the most memorable lines of the campaign.
At the coming debate, Obama can be expected to pull back the camera and point to a record that will be appealing to the majority of viewers. “Not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I’ve made,” he said in the second debate with Romney. “But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I’d end the war in … in Iraq, and I did. I said that we’d go after al-Qaeda and bin Laden; we have. I said we’d transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security; that’s what I’m doing.”
Romney, according to his campaign’s internal “message points” for the debate, plans to “present an optimistic vision of America’s role in the world,” and argue that “we can’t afford four more years of President Obama leading from behind.”
Romney’s campaign did not seize on Saturday’s night’s New York Times article reporting an agreement between the U.S. and Iran for one-on-one nuclear talks. The White House denied talks are set, but administration officials made clear to POLITICO that they see a diplomatic opening.
Democrats were worried about the politics of the revelation, but Romney surrogates on Sunday’s shows said little when pressed on the news. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), appearing behalf of the Romney campaign on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said: “[T]he White House has denied it, and so I don’t think there’s much more to talk about.” On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he punted in almost identical language: “Well, the White House has denied that. And so I don’t think there’s anything further to comment on that story.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Romney’s sparring partner in mock debates, followed the same line: “I don’t know if it will be a big story, because both the White House and the Iranians have said it’s not true. It sounds to me … that it’s another example of a national security leak from the White House, you know, and they’ve done a lot of that.”
In fact, the White House was unhappy about the leak, which apparently originated with Iranian sources, then was bolstered by officials in the U.S. administration.
Obama and his aides have worked out a response that shows why Romney will have a difficult time scoring resounding points in Boca Raton. According to a senior administration official, Obama is likely to say when asked about Iran: “I have put in place crippling sanctions. Just in the last month, you’ve seen their oil revenues collapse, their currency collapse. I’ve said I’d do everything I have to, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
The president will also argue: “Governor Romney has been unable to articulate any policy ideas that I’m not already doing, except go to war. The [New York Times] story itself isn’t true. But if Iran is pressured to come back to the table, that’s an opportunity. And we should have a conversation. It would be irresponsible, frankly, to reject it. Because your only other option is military.”