However else Campaign 2012 is chronicled, there is little doubt it will be remembered as the Year of Debates. Never have candidate debates played as important a role, from the start of the Republican primaries through the general election, as they have in this election.
Debates shaped the Republican presidential field during the fall of 2011 and played a critical role in determining the outcome of that contest last winter. Ask Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about that. The general election debates have shaken up the race and last week provided the most confrontational encounter of the modern era of presidential politics. Monday’s final debate could help decide who wins the election two weeks from Tuesday.
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President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney travel for that encounter to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Foreign policy is the topic of the 90-minute session hosted by CBS’s Bob Schieffer, but the debate will be far more than a discussion of world events. After their verbal brawl at Hofstra University on Tuesday, Obama and Romney have a few more scores to settle — and some cleaning up to do. They know that this will be their last opportunity to make or change impressions before a national television audience that once again could top 60 million people.
It’s likely both will be urged to throttle back from the heat of their second debate. After Obama’s listless performance in Denver, he had to prove to his base that he was willing to fight to retain his job and challenge what he said were Romney’s misstatements about his own policies and those of the president. Obama did that, and more, and may need to find a cruising speed somewhat short of that Monday to project a presidential demeanor.
Romney overwhelmed Obama at their first debate, changing the trajectory of the campaign and boosting Republicans’ enthusiasm level. But at Hofstra, challenged constantly by the president, he appeared peevish and testy — interrupting the president and peppering him with questions. Whatever progress he may have made in the first debate in projecting a more likable personality may have been set back in the second. He, too, needs to find the proper balance Monday.
At the Alfred E. Smith dinner Thursday in New York, Obama joked about his performance in Denver. “Some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate,” he said. “I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.”
That got a good laugh, but Monday is all serious business for both candidates. Obama has gotten generally good marks from the public for his handling of foreign policy, including ending the war in Iraq and setting a course for ending the war in Afghanistan, but he has drawn sharp criticism from Romney on a range of foreign policy issues. The GOP challenger, meanwhile, has a mixed track record at best of driving those criticisms home.
Romney has attacked Obama over Iran and Israel. He’s questioned how the administration has dealt with the uprisings in the Middle East. He’s taken issue with the president over the war in Afghanistan and has been critical of the administration’s policies on Russia and China. He has taken the president to task over defense spending.