By Tracy Bloom
Who knew that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could be so agreeable?
With the race as tight as ever, and in light of last week’s spirited and heated debate between Obama and Romney, all eyes were on Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday night as the presidential candidates squared off for the third and final time before the election.
Unlike the previous forums, which mostly explored domestic issues, the third presidential debate’s main focus was on foreign policy, an especially important subject now given the findings of the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll. According to the survey, the candidates are in a virtual deadlock, with Obama narrowly leading Romney 49 to 48 percent. But a key finding of the poll shows that Romney, despite several high-profile foreign policy gaffes over the summer, is gaining ground with voters on international issues:
“International affairs generally, and handling terrorism specifically, were once Obama strong points against the former Massachusetts governor, but voters now divide about evenly between the two. At the end of September, Obama held an 11-percentage point lead over Romney as the one voters trusted on terrorism—and killing Osama bin Laden is a mainstay on the Obama campaign trail. But now, 47 percent side with Obama on the issue, 46 percent with Romney.”
What we learned from Monday night’s debate, however, is that there appears to be not much discernable difference between the candidates when it comes to foreign policy.
From the opening question, it was clear that the candidates’ approach to this debate differed sharply from last week’s town hall-style format. Gone were the finger pointing, the in-your-face reactions and the interruptions that characterized the previous one. Sure, the candidates still tossed snide and snarky comments around, but the vitriol that was omnipresent last week was noticeably absent.
Libya was one of the last questions asked in the second debate. It also generated a heated response after moderator Candy Crowley fact checked Romney’s assertion during the debate. Naturally, Bob Schieffer, the moderator this time around, brought up Libya in the night’s first question.
But instead of pouncing, Romney ducked the issue, choosing instead to discuss the Arab Spring, Mali, Egypt and Syria—basically anything other than Libya.
From the get-go, Romney’s tone did appear to be more civil than it was last week, and within the opening minutes he congratulated the president for the military operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death. However, he added in what was probably his best line of the night, ultimately “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Meanwhile, Obama, attempting to prove that his first debate performance was a fluke, was once again on the offensive, calling out Romney early on for flip-flopping on what he deemed the biggest threat to the U.S.: “I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida’s a threat because a few months ago when you were asked, what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia—not al-Qaida, you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he said in one of his better zingers of the night.
From there, Obama and Romney discussed Syria, and we learned that there’s not much difference between what they would do in the region—both plainly expressed opposition to military involvement to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Assad must go. He will go,” Romney said, adding “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria.”
Obama countered that “What we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking ... but we also have to recognize that for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. I’m confident Assad’s days are numbered.”
When talk moved to Egypt, it appeared once again as though the two had borrowed pages from each other’s foreign policy playbooks.
Romney, for example, said he agreed with Obama that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had to leave, while the president stood by his 2011 decision to prod Mubarak’s removal.
When pressed by Schieffer whether he would have done anything different, Romney responded, “No, I believe as the president indicated, and said at the time that I supported his action there.”
The two were also in concurrence on policy in Afghanistan (they’ve both said troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, something that will likely not help Romney win over neoconservatives), on Israel (“If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” Romney vowed right after Obama said, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked”) and drones (Romney agrees with Obama’s drone strategy that has alienated many on the left; “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that policy,” he said).
Things certainly got heated between the candidates at times, with Obama admonishing Romney that “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong,” to which Romney responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
The two also traded barbs over Iran, with Romney accusing Obama and allies of not going far enough with the sanctions against the country, declaring that as a result, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”
But perhaps the best exchange of the night was when Romney discussed increasing the military, repeating a claim that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it’s been since 1917.
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama’s responded. “You mentioned our Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we had in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have ships that go underwater.” He added, “The question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships.”
Post-event polls show the majority of voters believed Obama took the last round of the presidential debates.
But, unfortunately for him, post-debate surveys won’t be deciding the election. Voters will.
With roughly two weeks left until Nov. 6, and no more debates on the horizon, it’s decision time.
AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds