His strategy was clear from the opening question, when he passed up a chance to criticize Obama for his response to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. He went on to praise Obama for overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden and ruled out a U.S. military role in Syria’s civil war, as Obama has done.
“I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking,” Obama said at one point. “There have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that would make a difference.”
Instead of offering a different view of the United States’ role in the world, Romney mostly sought to distinguish himself from the president by turning a foreign policy debate into one about domestic issues.
Not long into the 90-minute debate, Romney seized on an opening Obama gave him to talk about the American economy, a subject he returned to repeatedly throughout the debate, including in his closing statement.
That tack became evident after an early exchange on the Middle East that highlighted Obama’s command of the issue and Romney’s relative uncertainty when talking about international affairs.
Incumbent presidents often hold an edge on foreign policy questions, few more so than Obama, whose signature credential is approving the May 2011 mission that killed bin Laden. That success helped eliminate, at least until recently, the historical advantage Republicans have had over Democrats on issues of national security.
But recent polls have shown Obama’s advantage dwindling. The fact that foreign policy has become a potential vulnerability for Obama illustrates just how much ground Romney, who stumbled badly through his trip to Europe and Israel this summer, has gained since the first debate earlier this month.
A Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released hours before Monday’s debate showed that Obama no longer holds a clear advantage on who likely voters believe would better manage international affairs. The eight-point advantage Obama held in September has shrunk to three points, according to the tracking poll.
The survey also showed that nearly as many likely voters believe Romney would be a better commander in chief than the president, the critical question the challenger had to answer for voters Monday night.
A CBS News instant poll after the debate found that 53 percent of respondents believed Obama won it, with 23 percent saying Romney did and the rest calling it a tie.
Nonetheless, each side will probably see positive elements in its candidate’s performance as the campaigns set off immediately for the half-dozen or so swing states that will decide the election.