Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney emerged in the third presidential debate with a poise and gravitas that remained unshaken in the face of an opponent who appeared to be spoiling for a fight.
Though this final debate was centered on foreign policy, Romney opted to save his strongest challenges to President Barack Obama for the state of the economy at home, which continues to poll at the top of voter concerns.
To the surprise of many, Romney opted not to challenge Obama at all on the administration‚??s missteps and failures leading to the deaths of four Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya last month. Instead, he advanced a broader vision for the Middle East, to help combat strains of Islamist extremism, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to al Qaeda in the Middle East and parts of Africa.
‚??We can‚??t kill our way out of this mess,‚?Ě Romney said.
If it was an olive branch for Obama, the president spurned it, bringing up previous Romney statements about Russia as a geopolitical threat and how to pull out of Iraq and accusing Romney of having an outdated foreign policy mindset, while refusing to advance an agenda of his own.
Though the candidates had minor differences on action to help unseat the dictator Bashar al Assad in Syria–both agreed on a need to arm the opposition and said they did not want U.S. military involvement–the gloves came off in earnest while discussing the U.S. defense budget.
Sequester cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act mean that the Department of Defense will receive a half-trillion dollar cut at the beginning of next year, and Obama has threatened to veto a number of Republican legislative plans to avoid the cuts.
Romney doubled down on a desire to rebuild the Navy‚??s fleet of battleships, also due for sequestration cuts, and promised to protect defense spending with a carefully planned package of discretionary spending cuts and budget adjustments to avoid incurring further debt.
Obama, meanwhile, contradicted his top military officials to say, without explaining why, the sequester ‚??will not happen.‚?Ě(In the spin room following the debate, Obama adviser David Plouffe recast the position to “should not happen.”)
On the aging and shrinking Navy fleet, Obama mocked Romney.
‚??You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines,‚?Ě Obama said. ‚??And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we‚??re counting ships.‚?Ě
On the question of how to stop a nuclear Iran, Romney seemed to truly challenge Obama‚??s foreign policy for the first time in the debate, laying out a seven-step plan to keep the regime in check, including tightening sanctions on ships carrying Iranian oil and indicting the country‚??s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under the Genocide Convention. He said Obama had taken too long to enact the existing sanctions and had projected weakness instead of strength.
‚??We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,‚?Ě Romney said. ‚?? And we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they continue to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer.‚?Ě
Obama reiterated a desire to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon, but did not refute Romney‚??s allegations.
The surprise of the night was the debate‚??s prolonged turn to domestic policy, which Romney used to remind those watching of the soaring unemployment rate and the towering national debt, and to reiterate his five-point plan to get America up on its feet.
‚?? I’ve got a policy for the future and agenda for the future. And when it comes to our economy here at home, I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay, Romney said. ‚??And what we’ve seen over the last four years is something I don’t want to see over the next four years.‚?Ě
Obama also reverted to earlier talking points, stressing the importance of hiring more teachers, while not addressing Romney‚??s hits to his economic record.
As the debate closed, the candidates reverted again to domestic issues.
Obama restated his plan to push for job growth and to build revenue by taxing top earners.
‚??Yes, I want to reduce our deficit by cutting spending that we don’t need but also by asking the wealthy to do a little bit more so that we can invest in things like research and technology that are the key to a 21st century economy,‚?Ě he said.
Romney appeared at his most statesmanlike at the end, closing with a Reaganesque turn.
He said his presidency would see welfare programs shrinking, not because of cuts, but because recipients had found jobs that would support them.
‚??I’ll lead you in an open and honest way, and I ask for your vote,‚?Ě he said. ‚??I’d like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation and to make sure that we all together remain America as the hope of the earth.‚?Ě
Romney‚??s refusal to tangle with Obama on the nuances of foreign policy will be a disappointment to some, but he emerged from the final debate having executed a clear strategy: to keep the economy and the Obama administration‚??s failures on job growth and economic resurgence front and center in the voters‚?? minds.