The long season of political debates finally ends on Monday night.
After more than two-dozen debates during the Republican presidential primary season, one vice presidential debate, and two presidential debates with high ratings, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney will share the stage Monday for the last time with just two weeks to go before Election Day.
The final meeting comes as a new poll released Sunday by NBC and The Wall Street Journal shows the race tied. Both President Obama and Gov. Romney are at 47 percent of support among likely voters, according to the poll.
This time their face-off occurs in the battleground state of Florida. But don’t expect the kind of highly charged confrontation seen in the second debate when the two candidates prowled the stage and often came close to invading one another’s personal space. Instead, the two men will be seated at a table for Monday night’s 90-minute debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton.
In recent weeks, Romney has erased the lead Obama enjoyed after the political conventions ended in early September. Romney’s surge began with a spirited performance against a listless Obama in the first debate Oct. 3. That night, so far, has been the race’s defining moment. On Monday night, Obama hopes to further erase that performance from the memory of voters while Romney hopes to prove it was not a fluke.
The former Massachusetts governor has performed best when talking about the nation’s stagnant economy and the persistently high unemployment figures. While highlighting the country’s rising debt and Obama’s failed promise to bring the unemployment rate down to 5.6 percent, Romney has argued that his background as a business executive makes him the best candidate to tackle the nation’s fiscal woes. He’s managed to state his case and increase his likeability ratings in the process, despite offering little specifics beyond a broad five-point plan.
But Romney will not be able to depend on this economic message during Monday’s debate, which will focus on foreign policy.
CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, the debate’s moderator, has announced he will ask questions on five topics: America’s role in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, red lines for Israel and Iran, the new face of terrorism in a changing Middle East, and the rise of China.
Schieffer will press for specifics on what the candidates will do to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and how they will handle troop deployment in a still unstable Afghanistan.
But the debate’s main event could center on the attack last month on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. With congressional investigations on the Obama administration’s handling of the incident just cranking up, Romney had a surprisingly difficult time when he tackled this topic during debate No. 2 in Hempstead, N.Y. last Tuesday.
Saying he found it “troubling” that Obama flew to a political fundraiser in Las Vegas on the day after the assassination of the U.S. ambassador, Romney questioned when the Obama administration was willing to admit the incident was a planned act of terror and not a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
“It was very clear this was not a demonstration,” Romney said during that town hall-style debate. “This was an attack by terrorists. And this calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East.”
Obama pushed back, arguing that he stood in the White House’s Rose Garden the day after the attack and called it an act of terror. When Romney countered that it took the administration 14 days to call the Benghazi attack an act of terror, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN jumped in with an instant fact-check, seeming to side with Obama’s assertions.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy,” Obama asked as the audience laughed and applauded.
Romney taken aback, hesitated, verbally stumbled, and ultimately retreated from his talking points.
While Obama’s Rose Garden speech did include a promise that “no acts of terror” would shake America’s resolve, he did not directly tie the Benghazi killings to terrorists. Instead, he called it “senseless” and “brutal” while rejecting the controversial YouTube video. After the debate, Crowley said that Romney’s timeline argument “was right in the main.” But her admission came too little too late for Romney, as few of the millions who watched the debate likely caught Crowley’s follow-up clarification.
Many conservatives said it was Romney’s weakest moment of the two debates. But now he gets a redo. The Libyan attack remains a key area of vulnerability for Obama, and Romney would be wise to focus less on the semantics of the word “terror” and more on the unanswered questions surrounding the administration’s handling of the issue. That includes pleas by Ambassador Stevens prior to the attack for extra security that the administration either ignored or rejected.
Romney likely will force Obama to explain both his stance on the ongoing strife in Syria and his cool relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney also will argue that Iran is four years closer to a nuclear bomb. And, with the economy the top concern among voters, he could use the segment on China and trade to pivot back to a discussion about America’s economic strife.
Obama, meanwhile, will try to depict Romney as a foreign policy lightweight. The president’s top advisor, David Axelrod, on Sunday mocked the overseas trip Romney took this summer soon after securing the Republican nomination.
“We all remember his Dukes of Hazzard tour of international destinations over the summer, where he not only roiled countries that are not as friendly to us but also our best ally, Britain,” Axelrod said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
There will be at least one major talking point for Obama during this debate. Drawing laughs at a New York charity dinner on Thursday, the president offered a preview of his strategy that was meant in jest but likely contained more than a kernel of truth.
“Monday’s debate is a little bit different because the topic is foreign policy,” Obama said at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner for needy children. “Spoiler alert: We got Bin Laden.”