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.
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.
The debate in Florida will also see a continuation of the two men’s argument about what happened when four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed at a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya last month. Romney and Republicans want to know what the president and his team knew, and when, about security threats and the origins of the attack and why their story kept changing in the days and weeks afterward.
Romney has twice blown opportunities to keep the president on the defensive over what happened in Benghazi. At the time, he injected himself into the middle of the fast-moving events and made himself the story. At Hofstra, he got into a semantic argument over exactly what the president said about the killings the morning after they happened. He seemed too eager to play gotcha instead of trying to force a more serious discussion of what the killings say about the administration’s Middle East policies.
Romney is a good debater who prepares thoroughly. He will no doubt come to Monday’s debate with a better strategy for engaging Obama on these topics. But he’ll need to show that, beyond criticism, he has policies that would be both different and more effective than the president’s.
This election still hinges on how voters perceive the candidates and their ability to restore the economy. Monday’s final debate doesn’t lend itself to discussions of this central issue, but both candidates should find ways to address their weaknesses with respect to it.
The most difficult moment for Obama at Hofstra came when he was questioned by Michael Jones, who voted for the president in 2008 and now spoke for many others who have been deflated by his performance in office. “What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012?” Jones asked. “I’m not that optimistic as I was in 2012.”
Obama recited a litany of accomplishments and said of those promises not yet kept, “It’s not for lack of trying, and we’re going to get it done in a second term.” But Romney had the more effective response to Jones. “I think you know better,” he said. “I think you know that these last four years haven’t been so good as the president just described and that you don’t feel like you’re confident that the next four years are going to be much better, either.”
The president has rightly been criticized for not being more specific about his second-term agenda. What economic policies does he have that he hasn’t already tried? What is he truly prepared to do on the deficit? Having gone this far, it’s not likely he will start filling in those blanks in the final two weeks. He prefers to tell voters why they should fear Romney.
But what he also hasn’t done yet is restore a sense of faith and optimism about the next four years. That’s what Michael Jones was looking for last week, not merely a recitation of a litany of actions undertaken. It remains a missing piece in the president’s message.
Romney’s challenge is the same one that has dogged him throughout the general election, which is to overcome impressions that he is a rich man whose policies would benefit the wealthy. He wants voters to believe he can turn around the economy, but he needs them to believe he would do it with policies aimed at the middle class.
His performance in Denver helped on this score. He came across as confident, competent and moderate in both his demeanor and his policies. The second debate may have set him back with middle-class voters and with women, among whom he had been making some progress. He needs to use the last debate to restore what may have been lost at Hofstra.
Monday’s debate may not equal Denver for its impact on the campaign. It may not equal Hofstra for the sheer heat and intensity of the confrontation. But in a race as close as this one, whatever happens will be of consequence.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.