Final debate offers Romney and Obama a chance to tip the scales

Two things each candidate can do to win the debate. Photo: Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY, October 22, 2012 — Aside from the hyper partisans on each side, everyone seems to agree that this presidential election could go either way. With polls showing a dead heat and just as many likely scenarios for one to win the needed electoral college votes as the other, this last debate could make the difference between razor-thin victory and oh-so-close defeat.

It is unsurprising then, that each candidate has a couple of things he can do to make his performance in South Florida a success.

While Gov. Romney scored a decisive win in the first debate, largely about economic matters, the president fought back in the second to a draw.

But questions linger from the second debate, a townhall moderated by Candy Crowley and dealing with a mix of foreign and domestic affairs, and a few voters have somehow managed to remain undecided.

Tonight, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the two men will field questions mostly about foreign policy in hopes that those undecideds will finally break their way. In that respect, the president might have the advantage, given that he has had the experience dealing with foreign affairs for the past three and a half years.

Yet Gov. Romney has more to gain, since voters expect their president to know the issues. If the challenger shows a commensurate command, then he will have won the night.

If he wants to walk away a winner, Romney can do two things. If Obama wants to prevent  the upset, he will a couple of must-dos of his own. Here they are

Mitt Romney needs to:

1. Be realistic about Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Leading the free world isn’t the easiest thing to do, and the governor needs to be calm, serious, and to some degree, deferential, acknowledging the challenges President Obama has had to face. He can tip his hat to the president by conceding the overall Iraq war strategy while differing on Status of Forces negotiations. He can point out the president’s inconsistencies during the Libya episode, without appearing to blame the president for the tragic death of Americans.

To be sure, the world is a mess right now, particularly that part of the world where Obama has been most assertive. But independent Americans won’t be swayed by a partisan-sounding attack on U.S. policy, rather, they will prefer a reasoned and balanced perspective. Romney should point out where things have gone well, and where they could stand some improvements.

2. Promise to not blame his predecessor. Being leader of the free world might be very difficult, but Americans elect presidents to own problems, not to shift blame. Independents will react well if they get the sense that Romney will take the problems he can deal with and deal with them. Romney can go after poor Russo-American relations, a near-nuclear Iran, and a China on the rise.

The president’s upside is much smaller, since his foreign policy performance has been evaluated during the past three and a half years. Viewed favorably until the Libya fiasco, Obama’s main objective now should be to paint Romney as a man who wouldn’t do much better.

To score big, the president needs to:

1. Avoid chest thumping on his achievements. The president can highlight what he has accomplished in the War on Terror without dancing on Osama Bin Laden’s grave. Far from cheerleading the death of a man, Obama needs to talk about American interests, and how his brand of war fighting and peacemaking furthers them.

He will be tempted to cast Romney as a warmonger, but he ought to be careful about this, since Romney has made no allusion to uses of force that the president has not. Instead of attacking his challenger reflexively, the president will be better served to defend his record and promote an extension of it.

2. Sell his new defense strategy as a way to reduce costs. Obama can play on Americans’ disdain for European politics by pointing out that the latest defense strategy moves manpower and weapons out of Europe and pivots our military resources toward China. He can also sell it as fiscal responsibility and bringing efficiencies to a bloated military.

Romney’s position of increasing military spending will be the easiest line of attack, and the president will do it. But he needs to do it in an analytical way in order to sell it to the few undecided voters who are left. Instead of preaching platitudes about responsible spending, he should get into the weeds about which programs cost too much, and why reducing force sizes will enhance America’s ability to respond where needed.

It is doubtful that either candidate will win outright. But, if they are wise, they’ll open the playbook wide. After all, this is their last chance.

Join us for a live chat during the debate to discuss whether the candidates are hitting their mark. 


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Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell has written about politics and travel for the Washington Times Communities since 2011. He is a soldier in the Utah National Guard and a fellow at the Center for Communication and Community at the University of Utah. Rich is the author of "Nine Weeks: A Teacher's Education in Army Basic Training"and continues to blog about military issues at “My Public Affairs.”

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