President Obama and Mitt Romney meet for a final time on Monday night – unless Romney prevails on Election Night, in which case there will be a fourth and decidedly frosty encounter at the White House late in the morning on January 20, 2013, when control of the executive branch of the federal government would change hands.
How to anticipate this third presidential debate?
You can argue that, in a forensic best-of-three series, we’re tied at one-apiece. However, that’s not quite accurate. Romney’s decisive win in Denver (he gained in the polls, sent Obama spiraling for the first time as a presidential candidate, and convinced the media the race was genuinely on) far outweighs the President’s marginal “win”at the Hofstra town-hall (Obama’s performance was indeed far-improved, but he didn’t change the campaign’s narrative; to the extent that anyone was doing damage control post-Hofstra, it was Candy Crowley’s employer).
Here’s what’s odd about this final debate: foreign policy and national security, thought to be an after-thought in an election dominated by a weak economy, is back with a vengeance.
Add to that a second oddity: when the 2012 debate schedule was first drawn up, it seemed the planners had done the President an enormous favor by making foreign policy the topic of the third and final debate, just 15 days before Election Day.
Why the benefit? Because, until a few weeks ago, foreign policy was the President’s trump card. Just go back to the two parties’ national conventions. Obama played up Osama bin Laden’s death to an adoring crowd; Romney didn’t mention Afghanistan in his acceptance speech.
And so it stood until Sept. 11 and the murder of four Americans in Benghazi. That foreign policy trump card? It could be Obama’s death card, depending on which candidate does a better job explaining both the security lapse in Libya and why the Obama Administration’s various foreign-policy channels have been so inept in the aftermath of said attack.
Meanwhile, here are four things worth watching in regard to Obama-Romney III:
1) Libya. Let’s begin with the obvious: what Romney has to do better than he attempted at Hofstra. In the last debate, the Republican challenger got bogged down in semantics over “act of terror”, giving the President wiggle room on what otherwise is a losing subject. It was a lot like watching Ken Starr’s legal team getting tripped up by Bill Clinton over the definition of “is”. On Monday night, does Romney take the Libya fiasco in a clearer, more aggressive direction – i.e., calling for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s resignation? Does he go even further, suggesting that the Obama Administration’s insistence on linking the Benghazi attack to a YouTube video is emblematic of this presidency’s apologetic default stance (i.e., Middle Easterners hate us because of our culture, our values, our choice of allies)?
2) Bush League. By some counts, 80% of the Obama’s campaign advertising has been negative – trying to convince voters that Romney is an evil robber baron, evil oppressor of the informed and needy . . . in short, just plain evil (a problematic strategy as the Romney seen in these debates is anything but Nixonian-menacing). If Obama loses this election, second-guessers will suggest he turned off independents with the relentless attacks when a better use of dollars would have been a second-term vision. Watch for Obama to stay in attack mode Monday night, doing his best to link Romney to George W. Bush’s foreign policy. It’s safe to assume that part of Romney’s debate-prep was spent bracing for this line of attack. If Romney’s smart, he’ll have a Reaganesque “there you go again” line to shut down the President.
3) Schieffer City. A bad play of words re. a beer marketing slogan, and a concern about Monday night’s moderator: CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. In the aftermath of CNN’s Candy Crowley affecting the last debate, there’s now the question of what Schieffer will do in the moderator’s hot seat. Heading into the debate, the gripes go something like this: the right sees another entrenched Washington journalist who’s bound to favor the President by wrongly interjecting himself into the debate; the left doesn’t care for Schieffer’s choice of questions. Does Schieffer strike a happy balance that was missing in the previous two debates? For the third time, will a divided electorate take out its frustrations on the one non-candidate on the stage?
4) The Bounce. We know what happened after the first debate: Romney erased Obama’s lead in the polls. After the second debate, the trend among likely voters remains in Romney’s direction. Two things to look for once the debate ends and the dust settles: (a) if either candidate gets a bounce in the 72 hours afterwards; (b) both campaigns tweaking their respective strategies (translation: the race to 270 electoral votes) for the home stretch. Reports last week had a confident Team Romney pulling out of a locked-down North Carolina (the GOP campaign denies this). The other shoe to drop: Team Obama shifting resources out of Florida (assuming the state’s not winnable for the Democrats) and doubling-down on Ohio.
It’s another sign that we’re getting closer to the finish line – the debates ending, swing states coming off the board, a 50-state election hinging on 100-or-so counties.
And that light at the end of the tunnel? Hopefully, not another presidential debate about to go off the rails.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen