DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — The final debate of the presidential campaign will take place Monday in a climate utterly different from the first: A close and hard-fought campaign in which the challenger, Mitt Romney, is the one whose aides say they’d like to keep momentum high and expectations low.
“Most voters aren’t paying attention to foreign policy — and they certainly don’t want to watch a debate about it,” said one Romney aide. The aide also noted that the debate will be competing against Monday Night Football and game seven of the NLCS tonight night for viewers.
Despite record audiences to the previous debates, “no one will be watching,” the aide predicted.
Despite dismissing the debate, Romney’s team exuded confidence on Sunday, telling reporters that debate prep at the Marriott in Delray Beach ended around 4 p.m. with the final mock debate. Sen. Rob Portman received a round of applause for his portrayal of Barack Obama. Just a short review schedule may be in the cards for debate day.
Obama, meanwhile, finds himself in the unusual position of a Democrat playing a strong foreign policy hand. His campaign trail discussion of the subject has focused largely on his greatest triumph, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and he has addressed the subject primarily to poke at his rivals’ weakness —Romney bumbling a foreign trip or his response to a news event like Libya.
“We all remember his Dukes of Hazard tour of international destinations of the summer where he not only roiled countries that are not as friendly to us, but our best ally, Britain,” Obama’s top adviser, David Axelrod, said Sunday on Meet the Press.
But Romney has also struggled to offer a clearly different set of plans in an arena dictated more by national interest and presidential instinct than by white papers. Save for branding China a currency manipulator, Romney has largely failed to establish a clear distinction between himself and Obama beyond continuing his policies — save for employing tougher rhetoric to describe it. And Romney has stopped short of trying to sell a war-weary nation on the logical consequence of his tougher talk — tougher action.
Romney has ducked saying what he’ll do if given the option of negotiating with Iran one-on-one, as the New York Times reported on Saturday — a luxury he won’t have on the debate stage. Obama, meanwhile, will be asked to account for the mixed messages coming out of his administration.
But the Massachusetts governor faces real challenges Monday. Unlike Obama, he has not been steeped in these issues for the past four years. Aides suggested that Romney plans to back off the Libya attack in tonight’s debate — which backfired in last week’s town hall — to focus more broadly on the complex consequences of the Arab Spring.
Obama too may try to back off his own aggressive stance at the last debate, aides hinted, saying he’s planning on reminding voters that he is, in fact, president.
“That’s what most people are looking for in this debate — it’s about showing you have the temperament to handle crises, and time and again Mitt Romney has proven he lacks it,” said one Obama campaign aide. “Who do you want in the Oval Office when things get tough? The man who had the courage to kill Osama bin Laden or the man who couldn’t keep his shoes tied on a foreign trip?”
The format too, will prevent the all-out-slugfest witnessed in the town hall debate, with both candidates seated just feet from Bob Schieffer and each other at a table. That has not, of course, put a dent in the half-serious pre-debate jabs.
“It means Romney might not be as aggressive either,” the Obama aide said, “But we’ve seen what happens when he gets called out — he gets angry with the moderator, and that’s going to cost him, particularly when discussing these subjects.”
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