UPDATE at 10:40 p.m.: The candidates very much got back to foreign policy. If Romney’s goal was to present himself as knowledgeable and reasonable on foreign policy — i.e., not a war-monger — he achieved it. He has been much more conciliatory toward Obama than vice versa — he’s eschewed many opportunities to attack Obama, whereas Obama has been on the attack all night. Which suggests both candidates saw Romney as the front-runner coming into tonight’s debate.
If so, I saw nothing tonight to change that. Each candidate had some good moments, but neither truly drew blood. If Obama needed a win, I don’t think he got it tonight.
The pundits are talking about Obama winning on “debate points.” I don’t think that’s the way undecided voters view these things. They wanted to see, as in the first debate, if Romney was this wild-eyed extremist the Democrats have been painting him as. Obama didn’t sleep-walk through this debate by any means, but Romney achieved the same goal of coming across as reasonable and, this time, believable as a commander-in-chief. That’s all he needed tonight.
UPDATE at 9:41 p.m.: Both candidates are trying very hard to turn this into something other than a foreign-policy debate. Which probably makes political sense; only so many voters are going to pull the lever based on what they think will happen in Damascus. But given that Obama has managed no more than a tie from the first two debates, and is saying nothing new on domestic policy tonight, you have to wonder why he thinks this is a good strategy.
UPDATE at 9:28 p.m.: So far, Romney sounds as if the last words — maybe the only words — he heard before he went on stage were: “Don’t sound bellicose.” Which is smart, but he doesn’t have to sound bellicose to draw a clear line between his policies and priorities and Obama’s. And so far he isn’t doing that effectively.
For his part, the president has turned every question so far back to “nation-building at home.” He’s been saying that for years now. His problem is that his idea of nation-building at home isn’t necessarily what the people at home want. Obamacare? Dodd-Frank? Deficit spending for stimulus?
Tonight is President Obama’s last chance to beat Mitt Romney in a head-to-head debate — and, possibly, to grab hold of the prevailing narrative of this election as it enters its final two weeks.
To recap: Romney changed his fortunes in the first debate in Denver on Oct. 3. Within a week of his solid defeat of a listless Obama, Romney had gone from trailing by 3.1 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of national opinion polls to leading by 1.5 points. More important, he took control in swing states that traditionally back Republicans (e.g., Missouri and North Carolina) and put some typically Democratic-leaning states (think Michigan, Wisconsin and even Pennsylvania) into the toss-up category.
Last Tuesday’s debate on Long Island finished with many observers — including, naturally, all those Democrats who had been wringing their hands about the first debate — declaring Obama the winner. I took some heat from some of my regular commenters for predicting Obama wouldn’t get a boost from the debate. But sure enough, Romney is a slightly larger favorite in the RCP average six days later. And the most crucial swing states — particularly Ohio, but also New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and perhaps even Wisconsin — remain within either man’s grasp. The race definitely is in “too close to call” territory.
But the first two debates were largely about domestic policy. Now we get a night all about foreign policy — at least until each candidate can segue to the domestic implications of any given topic — and that ought to be firmer ground for the current commander-in-chief than for his challenger. Will Obama be able to capitalize on that? Or will Romney be able to portray his presidency as one of missed opportunities and even missteps, particularly when it comes to the inflamed Middle East?
We shall see. Tune in here and on Twitter for real-time commentary, and look out tomorrow for a special post-debate discussion on AJC.com with yours truly and my colleague, Jay Bookman.
– By Kyle Wingfield