Presidential debate: 5 things to watch Monday
By: Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush
October 22, 2012 04:23 AM EDT
The greatest show on earth meets for one last time tonight in the Sunshine State.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have had two of the most memorable debates in modern presidential history, and they get together for the last one in Boca Raton, Fla. tonight.
Obama needs to keep Romney from looking like an acceptable alternative as president, as Romney has — to varying degrees — in the last two debates. Romney needs to narrow Obama’s edge on foreign policy and national security with voters, and to argue that the president’s policies in the Mideast have failed.
Below, POLITICO’s five things to watch:
1. Who’s the first to bring home foreign policy
The issue of the day remains the economy, despite a final debate that is focused on global issues.
The candidate who is best able to relate the foreign policy questions back to jobs at home is likely to emerge with an edge in the final showdown.
For example, Paul Ryan was the first to raise John Kennedy’s tax policies in the vice presidential debate — and was quickly mocked for it by Joe Biden in “you’re no Jack Kennedy” fashion.
Expect either Romney or Obama to try to make the Kennedy case about U.S trade policy, such as China’s effects on manufacturing in the Midwest. For Romney, this is an extension of an argument he’s made on the campaign trail — and an opportunity to move away from an ill-phrased claim that Russia is the nation’s greatest geo-political foe.
Obama’s response on China in last week’s debate was to point to Romney’s personal investments in Chinese companies. A more specific case about how to address China — which Romney has dubbed a currency manipulator but hasn’t detailed what he would do for an encore — will need to be made here, especially to lure an audience for a debate that, to quote Ryan, is likely to get “wonky.”
“This is not a foreign policy debate,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “That’s the trap for both these candidates. For Obama it is the natural urge to explain what he has done on foreign policy. For Romney it is the natural urge to prove he is competent on this turf and not just a businessman. Message to both candidates: Get over it. Don’t worry about compensating for your weaknesses on foreign policy. Tell me how you would restore our economy at home so we can project American strength in the world.”
2. How they handle Libya
Even without moderator Candy Crowley’s controversial handling of a Libya question at last week’s debate, there was general consensus among Republicans that Romney muffed a chance to make a broad case against the Obama administration.
But his rough outing last week doesn’t mean Romney will leave Libya off the table tonight.
(See also: Battleground tracking poll: Romney takes lead)
The drip-drip of information raising questions about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi continued up until the end of last week.
Romney tends to struggle in the foreign policy area when he goes beyond briefing-book points. But Obama has also had off moments on foreign policy broadly, and Libya specifically is an uncomfortable point for him.
Moderator Bob Schieffer is almost certain to raise the issue, and Romney is likely to make the case that the administration has issued a haze of confusing answers about what went wrong since last month’s violence.
Obama will argue that Romney has politicized a tragedy, and the issue hasn’t yet become a top priority for voters, and will press what the Republican would have done differently to handle the Arab Spring uprisings. But the sense of confusion over what happened in Benghazi has grown, and Romney is likely to capitalize on it.
3. Whither the one-on-one talks?
Theories abound about how The New York Times ended up printing a story about an agreement to one-on-one nuclear talks between Iran and the United States, which landed just over 48 hours before the final debate begins and which the Obama administration denied.
Obama is almost certain to say the report is untrue if asked, but the end result has been that the issue of Iran, and the concerns of Israel, will be front-and-center at the final face-off.
Israel has been Romney’s major foreign policy touchstone for much of 2012 cycle, and he is hawkish on the subject.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who all but endorsed Romney when the Republican visited Israel last summer, said in a statement Sunday that Iran has used such talks to drag its feet. Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to keeping the Iranians from obtaining military nuclear capability.
Obama may use Romney’s language on Israel and a military strike, which has been muscular and evocative of Netanyahu’s past position, to paint the Republican as the candidate of permanent war, at a time when polls show the nation weary of war.
Obama has painted Romney as a version of the caricature Jimmy Carter drew of Ronald Reagan as a war-monger (the same is true in reverse, as Romney has tried to make the Carter case against Obama repeatedly). It was a key question in their 1980 debate, and Reagan turned it by saying he favors peace through strength, to avoid more American lives lost. Several Republican pundits have publicly urged Romney to go this route.
4. Night of the gaffe?
Even Obama wouldn’t be watching this debate in real time if he wasn’t actually required to be onstage.
He’d be part of the untold millions watching his beloved Chicago Bears take on the Detroit Lions (Romney’s childhood hometown team) on Monday Night Football. Baseball fans have their own big event too, in the form of a potentially decisive game seven of the Cardinals-Giants National League Championship game.
Those distractions, coupled with the debate’s foreign policy focus, will cut into the robust viewership enjoyed by the first two debates. And that means most voters will rely on a media filter, which tends to kill context and catch sound-bites, one-liners and gaffes.
Moreover, these are two men who don’t like each other, are tired from weeks of nonstop campaigning and are starting to feel relaxed in each other’s company. This is when people say stupid things.
The narrative of the 2012 presidential debates is already largely written, with Obama’s opening-night flop and subsequent recovery now occupying its own place in the debate canon. But Romney, in particular, has been known to make jaw-dropping mistakes (challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet last December was a biggie) and his “binders of women” head-scratcher gave Team Obama a modest attack line at a time when it was desperate to halt the Republican’s momentum.
Obama is less gaffe-prone, but he tends to make his mistakes when he’s too relaxed, in open-mic situations. The ‘who’s really-watching?’ vibe of Boca might coax the president to drop his guard.
The other possibility for both Obama and Romney is that, on the heels of their Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson imitation in the New York debate last week, they will both over-correct and try to appear sober and leaderly. They will also be seated at a table, eliminating the wandering theatrics of last week or the podium-pounding of Denver, which makes confrontation less likely.
If that’s the case, the debate may not do much to change the race’s current arc.
5. Iran is a women’s issue.
When Obama talks about ending two wars — and avoiding new ones — he’s talking to all voters, but especially to women.
Just because this election is focused almost entirely on the economy doesn’t mean that people have entirely forgotten the last two election cycles — in which matters of war and peace predominated.
Women voters have always been less supportive of military action — and bellicose political rhetoric — than their male counterparts, often by double digits.
In early 2011, two women in Obama’s inner circle — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — urged the president to support airstrikes against the Qadhafi regime. Women on the outside weren’t nearly as enthusiastic. Only 25 percent supported U.S. military intervention in Libya compared with 38 percent of men polled, according to a Harris/Financial Times survey.
Romney’s tough talk on Iran may thrill his party’s base and pad his lead among men, but it doesn’t play well with women — and that’s attracted the notice of an Obama campaign looking to regain ground it has lost with women on economic issues.
Democrats close to Obama say women in focus groups conducted during Romney’s Republican convention speech responded most negatively to the GOP nominee’s criticisms of Obama’s policy on Iran’s nuclear program.
“[E]very American is less secure today because he has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat,” Romney said in a line that was applauded by party hawks. “In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning.”
Women “really hate the Iran war talk,” said an Obama adviser, who added that Romney has softened his delivery since then because “women are the ones who send their sons to war.”
When Joe Biden had his crack at Paul Ryan earlier this month in their debate, one of his major attack lines was demanding to know if Romney and Ryan planned to back their tough talk with another military intervention in the Mideast.
“What are you — are you — you’re going to go to war? Is that you want to do now?” asked Biden, foreshadowing an approach Obama is likely to use tonight.
Obama isn’t counting on getting a lot of credit for his efforts to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since he gets more of a pop by talking about the Osama bin Laden raid.
But calling Romney on Iran talk is a way of reminding women voters of his record — and may punch through the general disinterest in foreign policy, Democrats hope.
To that end, Obama may press Romney for offering few specifics on exactly what he would do differently in Afghanistan, and for Ryan’s comments in the debate last week that, Democrats argue, indicated a willingness to linger there.