“Iran has used the talks, the negotiations, with the five powers to drag its feet and to gain time to advance its nuclear weapons program."
-- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talking to reporters about a New York Times report that the Iranian government is willing to eventually resume negotiations over its nuclear program.
When the topic for the final presidential debate was announced at the end of July, the thwacking of Republicans’ palms on their foreheads was audible.
Closing on foreign policy? Who agreed to that?
At the time, Obama maintained a small but steady lead in head-to-head polls but enjoyed an outsized margin on foreign affairs over his Republican challenger.
In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken just before the debates were announced, Obama led Romney by 15 points on who would better handle foreign policy. Obama enjoyed a 6-point lead among registered voters in a head-to-head match up and seemed to be heading into the heat of the general-election season with the wind at his back.
Team Obama was positively giddy about the prospect of being able to close the debate series with an extended remix of the president’s central argument in defense of his term: General Motors is alive and Usama bin Laden is dead.
But as we come to the day of the debate, the situation looks very different. Romney is now tied with the president in a head-to-head match up among likely voters in the Journal poll and has momentum on his side. And on foreign policy, the Republican challenger cut Obama’s advantage in half.
In the intervening 90 days, two things happened that changed the trajectory of the race.
First, Islamist militants pulled off a successful Sept. 11 raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya – a nation in which Obama had helped depose the previous leader and helped install an Islamist government. The security failure would have been bad enough for Obama’s credentials on foreign policy, but the effort to shift blame for the attack to an Internet video made it a complete political botch.
Second, Romney stepped out of the maelstrom of attack ads and character bashing delivered by the president and his team and onto the debate stage. Having been so caricatured for months, Romney’s forceful performance in the first debate shattered the well-made myth of Romney the “vampire.”
In their second debate, Obama revived himself and ditched the sourpuss in favor of a combative countenance. While he may have saved himself from a rout, Obama clearly didn’t stop Romney’s momentum, and neither did Vice President Joe Biden in his teeth-baring assault on Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.
The latest polls show Romney still moving forward and Obama unable to regain his footing as the favorite. With three debates in the collective consciousness of the electorate, it’s Romney by a nose.
Romney still has serious work to do in Ohio, where he has come back from oblivion and into contention. But the trend line nationally and in the swing states is that with two weeks to go, Romney’s surge has continued.
This is then a bad time for the president to be playing defense on what was formerly his strongest suit of foreign policy. What Obama could really use is what his handlers imagined when they agreed to the debate schedule – a strong closing argument on his strongest suit.
Instead, Obama will face new questions about the Benghazi raid, including newly released cables that show mounting worries from the doomed U.S. ambassador about the security situation in the days before the attack.
While the killing of bin Laden 18 months ago is a strong talking point for the president, much of the rest of the international situation looks like trouble. Russia is rattling its saber, China is still rigging its trade policies, Europe is in a deep fiscal funk, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is increasingly disorderly, al Qaeda is rebounding in Iraq and elsewhere, Israel is anxious, Iran is moving closer to nuclear weapons, the Syrian government stands and what was once called the Arab Spring has taken on a deep chill.
While the president promises to put Romney on the defensive over his foreign policy stances, any attacks will have to come in the context of the mounting problems around the globe. Obama’s once-promising closing argument on foreign policy looks increasingly like his defense on domestic policy: It would have been worse if the Republicans were in charge.
That’s a potentially potent argument for a war-weary nation that still dislikes the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Romney will have to make clear that he’s not in favor of any invasions or re-invasions and that his foreign policy would represent a steady, if more forceful, hand on the tiller of the ship of state.
His primary objective, though, is to recount the mounting challenges facing America abroad and make his argument that Obama’s policies have worsened the situation. He was on his way to making that case when the moderator of the previous debate threw a jack rock in front of him on the Libya debacle. Tonight, he has to finish the job.
But even if Romney can’t do that and even if Obama manages to prosecute Romney for being a political opportunist on the current crises, the president has one more problem.
Tonight sees the exciting conclusion of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants as well as a Monday Night Football match up between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, this debate is facing some viewership headwinds.
Given that the topic is not the central one to the election, there’s a good chance that clickers will start clicking as the debate wears on.
All Romney needs out of the debate is to keep the current direction of the race going, while the president needs to turn things around. If Romney comes out of the debate sounding plausible and Obama spends much time explaining, the president may end the month on the same sour note on which he began it.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.