Posted by on October 22, 2012 in Blog

Tonight, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will meet for the final debate of this election season to discuss foreign policy issues. Tonight’s debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, will take place in Boca Raton, Florida and will air at 9:00pm eastern time. The debate could make a key difference in a neck-and-neck race, as the national polls show both candidates in a statistical tie. Obama does maintain a slight swing-state edge, however, with a 16 point lead in the Electoral College. Here are some stories to watch for:


  • Tiebreaker: Voters and pundits gave Romney a definitive edge in the first debate, while they gave Obama a narrow victory in the second. A clear win for either candidate will likely make him the overall winner of the debates.
  • The Most Thankless Job in News: Moderators in each of the debates have been subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism for their performances. Jim Lehrer’s performance was panned as too passive. Candy Crowley’s live fact-check of Romney and her choice of questions from the crowd led to complaints of bias from the right. Martha Raddatz found her wedding guest list scrutinized as possible evidence of favoritism to the Obama-Biden ticket. No matter how engaged Bob Schieffer chooses to be tonight, his performance is likely to garner criticism of some kind. Understandably, the criticism usually comes from the losing party.
  • Romney’s Test: Mitt Romney will be battling the perception that he is a foreign policy novice in tonight’s debate. This perception is not only fed by his lack of experience in the foreign policy realm, but also by his missteps along the campaign trail. On his foreign trip over the summer, he irked British leaders by insulting their Olympic preparations and implied that “culture” was to blame for Palestine’s economic plight. Furthermore, his attempt to score political points while the Libya crisis was still unfolding was panned by the media. Tonight’s debate is a key moment, and a last chance, for Romney to display knowledge and judgment on issues related to foreign policy.
  • Obama on Defense: Obama must defend four years of his foreign policy. Romney is likely to criticize him for a premature pullout from Afghanistan, the on-going Syrian conflict, and a declining U.S. relationship with Israel. Obama must rebut this criticism and try to steer the conversation toward his accomplishments like killing Osama Bin Laden and ending the war in Iraq.
  • Rematch on Libya: Republicans are hitting the President hard on why requests for extra security at diplomatic posts in Libya weren’t met, and why it took two weeks for the administration to get its story straight on what happened. Despite the right’s best efforts, Romney himself has yet to land a punch on the matter. His initial response was widely criticized and during the town hall debate he got caught up in semantics and ended up losing the exchange. While Romney has so far failed to make his criticism of the President’s handling of the Benghazi crisis stick, tonight he will likely come prepared for his last chance to do so.
  • An October Surprise: Pundits seemed to be mystified by the reports that Iran and the United States have agreed in principle to direct talks about their nuclear program after the election. The White House denied the reports, further muddying the waters. Usually with big news of this nature, the campaigns will use surrogates to try out tacks on the issue prior to the debate. Instead, neither campaign opted for this method on the subject of direct talks with Iran, leaving in unclear how and if the issue will be addressed in tonight’s debate.
  • The Arab Spring: It will be interesting to see the tone the candidates strike when discussing the Arab Spring as a whole in tonight’s debate. The President has warned of “bumps in the road” but has largely spoken of the Arab Spring as a positive development. Romney on the other hand has expressed more skepticism, as well as a desire to take a more active role in shaping events. Romney has criticized Obama in the past on his initial response to the uprisings in the Arab World, including a suggestion that the President should have remained supportive of Hosni Mubarak. Whether or not we’ll hear more of this difference in tone depends on the questioning in tonight’s debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer is certain to ask about several key individual events related to the Arab Spring, but the only way to get at how the candidates feel about the Arab Spring in principle is to ask a more general question.
  • Substantive Differences: On a number of foreign policy issues, there is little daylight between the candidates in the substance of their policies. Most of the differences are those of rhetorical posturing rather than courses action. For example, Obama and Romney’s stances on Syria are nearly identical in the course of action they are proposing: condemn Assad in the harshest terms, work with allies to support the right elements of the Syrian opposition, but abstain from direct intervention unless there is a drastic development involving the use of chemical weapons or threatening vital American interests. Instead, Romney’s criticizes the administration on rhetorical matters such as its referring to Assad as a “reformer” years ago. Syria is only one of several areas in which the substance of the policy is not as different as the rhetorical barbs would make it appear.
  • The Bush Legacy: A key tactic for Obama tonight will be to point out similarities between Romney’s foreign policy and that of President Bush. Such attacks from President Obama are slightly disingenuous given the amount of Bush-era national security policies his administration has continued, but Obama is likely to be able to land these punches anyway. This is primarily because of Romney’s choice of foreign policy advisors, a team comprised mainly of Bush era neocons such as Elliot Abrams and Dan Senor. 
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