WASHINGTON—Global issues. A global audience. The unmistakable whiff of war with Iran in the air. The most important chair on the planet up for grabs.
Such were the stakes Monday night, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney entered the tiebreaking third and final debate to determine who, in two weeks, will win the White House.
And for Obama, the clear goal from the start was to coolly, firmly grab the stakes and drive them down into the heart of the Romney agenda; to put this agonizing dead heat out of its misery, once and for all.
Ninety minutes later, there was little doubt — the final round of kabuki theatre belonged to Obama. From Iran to Afghanistan to Libya to Egypt, from crushing the notion this is an apologetic president to taking ownership of the U.S. alliance with Israel, Obama equalled or bettered Romney.
Whether it will make the difference remains an open question, as the two now hurl themselves into a final fortnight toward Nov. 6, neck-and-neck by every measure.
Romney had a few powerful moments in Boca Raton, Fla. — each one delivered by pivoting away from the topic at hand to domestic issues, pounding the Obama administration’s dismal record on jobs, debt and economic growth.The former Massachusetts governor has made the same points time and again. And this being their last direct encounter, small wonder he chose to pound that home-front drum.
But on the vast breadth of foreign questions, Romney’s decision to dial down his previous bluster and shift to the moderate middle simply didn’t work. Obama called him out each time, identifying the Etch-a-Sketch confusion as “all over the map,” and signalling that apart from rhetoric, little separates the two on the hardest questions of the day.
Yet where differences remain, it was Obama who made the most of them. In one especially memorable exchange, the president tore into Romney for promising to restore the U.S. navy to its former size as part of a larger pledge to add $2 trillion in military spending.
The fleet numbers, said Obama, mean nothing because of changing technology. And given the country’s debt challenges — and the fact the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined — it makes no sense to pledge what even senior force commanders say they can live without, he said.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” the president deadpanned, in a clincher that instantly went viral. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them . . . . It’s not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships.”
The “bayonets” phrase had all the hallmarks of a “zinger” — well rehearsed, loaded for maximum impact. But it also smacked of condescension, a dog whistle of sorts to that large tranche of Americans who view the president as too clever for his own good.
As the debate wore on, Romney looked increasingly uncomfortable. Not with the depth of detail on the most delicate Mideast files — he had that down. But there was simply no space for him to frame more moderate positions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Syria’s withering internal combustion without sounding almost exactly like the man he wants to replace.
Instead, Romney pivoted back to vagaries, repeating the widely debunked myth that Obama indulged in an “apology tour” in his first months in office, telling the world he was sorry for George W. Bush.
Obama leaped on it, saying: “If we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken . . . the first trip we took was to visit our troops, and when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t go to fundraisers . . . I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, to remind myself of the nature of evil.”
Obama then told of a visit to rocket-scarred Sderot, the town nearest to Hamas-controlled Gaza, describing how the Israeli families he met there moved him to mobilize U.S. funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system.
The exchange was enough to make any Palestinian grimace over America’s role as a fair broker. But facing an opponent who repeatedly accuses the White House of “throwing Israel under the bus,” Obama’s commanding display all but erased the possibility of any winning retort.
Obama was cooler this time that he was a week ago. But his calm demeanour belied an underlying aggression that was determined to cast Romney as out of touch and out of time.
That included a clash over Romney’s earlier characterization of Russia America’s foremost “geopolitical foe.”
“The Cold War has been over for 20 years,” said Obama. “When it comes to your foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s.”
Romney found his footing eventually, arguing that Obama’s policies in the Middle East and North Africa, however well-intended, are resulting in a “rising tide” of radicalism.
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” said Romney. “Attacking me is not how we deal with the challenges of the Middle East.”
The immediate post-mortems included a cluster of flash polls pointing to Obama as the winner — 48 per cent to 40 per cent (CNN), 53 to 23 (CBS), and 53 to 42, according to a Public Policy Polling survey of swing-state voters.
But the instant reaction now must compete with an aggregate of nationwide polls showing Romney has all but erased Obama’s once formidable lead on foreign affairs and national security.
Just hours before the debate began, a Washington Post/ABC News survey showed Obama led Romney 49 per cent to 46 per cent on overall international affairs. On handling terrorism, the numbers showed a de facto tie, with Obama polling 47 per cent and Romney 46. And on the question of which candidate would make a better commander-in-chief of the military, Obama led 48 to 45, the survey said.
With no more debates left, the home stretch now will morph now into a battle of the ground games, with both sides scrambling to mobilize their respective bases.