Foreign policy debate sets stage for final campaign push

The last of the debates is unlikely to be a convincing win for either candidate but there are opportunities for Obama and Romney to make points.

Monday's final debate will find the two candidates in a close race, with most national polls finding either leading within the margin of error (that is, three points) nationally and in key battleground states.

The debate will be on foreign policy, which normally would favor the Republican candidate. Voters traditionally have expressed greater confidence in Republicans when it comes to managing foreign/national security policy while favoring Democrats to manage the domestic agenda. This year though, Obama has struggled under the burden of a weak domestic economy and Romney from his own relative inexperience in offshore issues. Obama thus should have an edge Monday. But you never know what external events could materialize or how the candidates will comport themselves as they face CBS correspondent and debate moderator Bob Schieffer across a table. (I have great confidence, by the way, in Schieffer as an old-school unbiased and professional moderator.)

Obama, in my judgment, has made too little of the fact that Romney's foreign-policy/national-security statements to date have been almost carbon copies of Sen. John McCain's in 2008. That is, Romney has taken care to be on the hawkish side of all Obama positions in this policy area. He wants defense spending increases rather than cuts. He advocates a tougher public and private posture toward Iran and closer coordination with the Israeli posture toward Iran, even though current sanctions are having an effect and the establishment of hard go/no-go intervention criteria could lead to a regional war.

Both candidates have talked of being "tough on China" on trade policy, but Romney goes a step further than Obama on this issue, which is in any case largely irrelevant to our overall economic well-being. Romney agrees with Obama's 2014 exit date from Afghanistan but disagrees with our approach on the ground until then. Romney will have an opportunity, however, if international financial/economic issues are discussed. He has an edge in knowledge there.

It would be regrettable if the Monday debate focuses primarily on the 9/11 deaths of the U.S. ambassador and security personnel in Libya, although it will be hard to evade the matter.

Several things are clear about the attack. First, State Department security personnel had denied the ambassador's request for additional security support in the period leading up to the attack. Second, despite recent statements to the contrary, the administration first attributed the attack to spontaneous demonstrations against an obscure anti-Islamic video produced in the U.S. Several senior officials publicly said this was the case. Then, several days later, Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and others stated that the attack in fact was pre-planned and involved Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

Romney has pressed the issue harder, in my judgment, than most voters would wish. Obama, on the other hand, would have been best served to simply state that the administration's original perceptions and statements were in error. (Voters have always been forgiving when their presidents simply owned up to mistakes, even including President Kennedy's acknowledgement that he simply blew it with a misbegotten CIA-led Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba). This is an important matter, but not important in comparison to Iran's drive toward a nuclear capability, the ongoing carnage in Syria, or instability in Pakistan. I am hoping that Schieffer treats it accordingly.

I expect neither candidate will come away with a clear debate victory Monday night, although Romney's relative inexperience with these issues could lead him into a damaging misstatement. (I plan to write a post-debate piece for Crosscut immediately after it ends.)

In the final stretch after the debate, both campaigns will invest heavily in swing-state media campaigns and in the "ground game" — that is, mobilizing their committed and "leaning" voters and getting them to the polls. That means the candidates' messages, in the final days, will be directed toward generating enthusiasm among their core constituencies without, at the same time, being so partisan as to turn off the 5-10 percent of voters who are genuinely undecided or thinking of changing their minds. The undecideds are the ones who will decide the election.


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