Published October 19, 2012
Will last Tuesday’s big debate moment become Monday night’s big debate topic?
Tuesday’s moment came when the candidates focused on the recent attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three others.
As the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page wrote: It was Mitt Romney’s “weakest moment.” The New York Time’s liberal editorial page concluded that Romney’s fumbling handling of the Libya issue was “the most devastating moment for Mr. Romney.”
Now as the campaigns ready for the foreign policy debate, to be held Monday in Florida, the question is whether Romney returns to the question of Libya.
Political insiders in both parties say no. They are predicting the argument will shift to the questions about the president’s handling of sanctions to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and the administration’s testy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even US relationships with Russia and China could get more time.
So if Romney chooses to go back to the topic of Libya he is taking a big risk. It again could prove to be a blind alley where he gets mugged a second time. Meanwhile both sides fear any factual slip or glaring lack of knowledge in this last debate before the election. That fear is large in the Romney camp as they prepare a candidate with no foreign policy experience.
Conservative Bill Kristol, writing on the Weekly Standard website, said “Foreign policy isn't Romney's natural subject. It's not his comfort zone. ..So if Romney can't win the foreign policy debate, he probably won't win. If he can, if he rises to the challenge, he'll deserve victory, and he'll probably achieve it.”
Romney’s advisers may feel he needs to go back to attacking the president on Libya to correct the errors of last week.
After the Hofstra debate Charles Krauthammer, the conservative commentator (and Fox News contributor), a harsh Obama critic said on Fox News: “Romney, I think had a huge opening that he missed.”
Meanwhile, the president succeeded in charging Romney with politicizing a national tragedy and parrying his feeble attacks.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our UN Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as commander in chief.”
The third debate also has added power because it will break the tie that now exists with each candidate having won a debate.
Romney scored a major win in that first, Denver debate. His poll numbers continue to climb. But after Obama’s win in the second debate will that surge come to a halt?
The answer will likely be based on President Obama’s success in the third debate.
Two specific sets of voters -- women and young people -- will be at the heart of judging the winner.
In the first debate Romney was able to reach out to women voters and his rise in the polls is tied to his success in racing into a basic tie for the women’s vote, at least according to some polls.
In the foreign policy debate the president will want to appeal to women as a level-headed leader while portraying Romney as a man who wants more wars.
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll of female voters in 12 swing states this week, Obama’s lead among women voters over Romney is down to only one point, 49 percent to 48 percent. Obama’s lead among female voters was considered to be his firewall for this election.
At the second debate the president played a strong hand in appealing to women. He began by trumpeting his success in passing legislation that offers legal muscle to the push for equal pay for women. And then he followed with his support for having insurance companies cover contraceptives as well as for federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
“In my health care bill,” the president said, “I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured... Gov. Romney not only opposed it, he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage."
One historical fact favoring Obama is that women have supported Democrats in every presidential race since 1992.
Obama will also be reaching out to young people in the third debate, a group he needs to energize.
According to a Fox News Poll of likely voters taken last week, President Obama leads Mitt Romney among young voters – those under 35 year old -- 51 percent to 39 percent. Young Americans strongly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the second debate, the president reached out to the young by talking about his efforts to make college affordable.
Obama reminded voters that his administration has nearly doubled funding for Pell Grants and that Romney had opposed this effort.
"We've expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women, all across the country," Obama explained. "We did it by taking $60 billion that was going to banks and lenders as middlemen for the student loan program, and we said, 'Let's just cut out the middleman. Let's give the money directly to students.' And as a consequence, we've seen millions of young people be able to afford college, and that's going to make sure that young women are going to be able to compete in that marketplace."
In a campaign position paper Romney’s has opposed more spending on Pell Grants. He wants to “refocus Pell Grants,” by targeting only the poorest students and putting banks back in charge of making the loans.
The president’s possible gains with women and young voters in the second debate could halt Romney’s run of success. But to capitalize the president has to continue his success in the next debate and that means a strong performance on foreign policy.