All three presidential debates are now in the books and the race to the White House is taking its final shape. Looking back, the first debate was undoubtedly the watershed moment of this campaign and the most powerful inflection point in the race to date.
President Obama regained some lost ground in the next two debates, including Monday night’s event, but the damage had already been done. Mitt Romney now carries the momentum into the home stretch.
Like in the second debate, Obama came out Monday night more aggressive and more provocative. He threw more punches and landed more punches, centering his attacks on trying to characterize Romney’s foreign policy as amateur and reckless. But there was an air of desperation in his delivery. It was as if he knew he needed to not just defeat Romney, but to destroy him. He fell far short of that bar.
Obama was helped, however, by Romney’s peculiar pass on contesting Libya and the Benghazi catastrophe while also not taking Obama to task for the timetable and withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Romney’s repeated agreement with Obama on issues like drone strikes and keeping U.S. forces out of Iran and Syria in any way may upset some conservatives. But we are at a different time and place in the foreign policy psyche of most Americans. The country is war-weary, wants the troops to come home and doesn’t want any form of intervention in another country. Romney had to reassure voters that he was not interested in nation-building and provoking or initiating foreign conflicts.
He accomplished that very well. It was a different test for a different time for a Republican candidate. He distanced himself from President George W. Bush and offered his own vision for the Middle East. Or as he put it, the United States should “help the – the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism.”
Perhaps foreshadowing the last two weeks of the presidential race, Romney used the debate to move to the center. He emphasized peace and diplomacy and avoided at all costs any hint of sending U.S. forces to future wars. Romney also looked and acted presidential. He had a steady, levelheaded confidence and avoided any snarky, patronizing “horses and bayonets” moments.
Obama used the final debate to go to the left and energize his base, attacking Romney at any opportunity while throwing in comments about teachers and classroom size — a clear signal to his strong base with the teacher’s union. Obama offered little on his plans for a second term and spent much of the debate hammering Romney.
That may be why some commentators think Romney acted and appeared more like the president and Obama the challenger. One of the central facets of the Obama campaign was to define Romney as an unacceptable candidate, which they did relentlessly in states like Ohio. Yet, Romney’s first debate performance shattered that image. And through the rest of the debates, he proved that he is not the man they said he was; he is not a warmonger or greedy vulture capitalist.
Now, Obama is racing to put the genie back in the bottle. The electoral map is shrinking for him while expanding for Romney. Paul Begala recently admitted the Obama campaign has given up on North Carolina. Meanwhile, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently campaigned in Pennsylvania, a state once thought to be totally out of the reach of Romney and Ryan. According to RealClearPolitics.com’s electoral map, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are now toss-up states and North Carolina is leaning Romney.
With the wind at this back, Romney can now consolidate his resources in the most crucial states — Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and perhaps even Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And with the foreign policy debate in the rear view mirror, he can get back to the economy — his strongest issue and advantage over the president.
In the latest WSJ/NBC poll Romney has a six point advantage on which candidate is better at dealing with the economy, a seven point lead on jobs and unemployment and a whopping 13 point lead on fixing the deficit.
Romney has the momentum. Barring any October surprise, he will likely keep the momentum. With less than two weeks to go, it may matter less what Romney and Obama say but where they say it. That will tell us all we need to know about how the campaigns feel heading into the home stretch.