On Monday night, just two weeks and a day before the election, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will square off in Boca Raton, Fla., for their third debate. The subject matter of this final debate will be foreign policy, focusing mostly on the Middle East, according to the six topics the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, released two weeks ago.
Monday’s debate is the last opportunity the candidates will have, barring major breaking news, to shake up the race. Romney’s strong performance in the first debate gave him enormous momentum, and Obama’s feisty showing in the second one helped the President take some of it back. The two men enter tonight’s debate essentially tied in the polls nationwide.
Thus far, from criticizing the United Kingdom for its Olympic preparations to calling Russia the biggest threat to America to forgetting to mention U.S. troops serving abroad in his convention acceptance speech, foreign policy has not been a strong suit for Romney. But the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans has hurt Obama in polls of his handling of foreign policy and provided the Romney campaign with its first opportunity to hit Obama on an issue that has otherwise been a strength for the President.
With few undecided voters remaining, it’s unlikely that one night of foreign policy discussion can change the course of a race that has largely focused on the economy. Still, for its capacity for dramatic moments and terrible flubs — just think how one “Oops” ended Texas Governor Rick Perry’s bid for the GOP nomination — a presidential debate always has the potential to be a game changer. Here are five things to watch for:
1. Benghazi: At the last debate, Romney accused Obama of not calling the attack an “act of terror” until two weeks after the fact. Obama retorted that he uttered the words “acts of terror” the day after, in remarks in the Rose Garden responding to the attack. The debate’s moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, noted that the President was right. “Look up the transcript,” Obama suggested to Romney. The episode left Romney on his heels on his biggest opening against Obama’s foreign policy. Romney has been arguing that the Obama Administration was trying to cover up the Benghazi attack, believed to be the work of an al-Qaeda affiliate, and disguise it as a flash mob because it undermined Obama’s argument that he had “al-Qaeda on the run.” In Monday’s debate, Romney must find a convincing way to make his case, especially since it has emerged in the past week that there had actually been a protest in the area and that initial intelligence reports from Benghazi cited a protest as the inciting incident. Playing the blame game goes only so far with voters. And Schieffer plans to spend at least 15 minutes focusing on the broader issue of the Arab Spring. With much of the Middle East, from Bahrain to Syria, facing instability, I’ve argued that this is an opportunity to ask both candidates what their plans are to deal with the broader issue.
2. Iran: The New York Times reported on Saturday that the U.S. and Iran had agreed to hold bilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the U.S. elections. But even though the story was sourced to the Obama Administration, the National Security Council was quick to deny that any such agreement existed. Iran also denied the report. But even the hint of talks is sure to yield a question for both candidates about how they’d handle potential bilateral negotiations with Iran. The Obama Administration has long said it would welcome such talks, and a bilateral meeting in 2009 led to a tentative agreement — the closest Iran has ever come to compromise — that quickly fell apart. Israel, on the other hand, has argued that the U.S. should not reward Tehran’s bad behavior and that there should be preconditions on any direct talks. It will be interesting to see if Romney would engage in direct diplomacy or if he would follow Israel’s lead and insist that Iran meet conditions first.
Romney has long argued that he would’ve been tougher on Iran and nicer to Israel if he’d been President these past four years. Obama, in contrast, says that without his willingness to directly engage with Iran — and their refusal to take him up on that offer — he’d never have been able to impose such crippling sanctions. Obama took Iran’s rejection to the world as evidence they were irrational actors and persuaded the European Union, the fourth largest consumer of Iranian oil, to boycott Tehran’s crude. He also cajoled the Russians and Chinese to get behind sanctions. Romney’s strategy on Israel is clear: “no daylight between our two nations.” But his plan for dealing with Iran is less so: Would he send in U.S. planes to strike Iran’s nuclear sites? Or, as his running mate Paul Ryan said, engage in a full-scale war? Would he merely stand by and empower the Israelis to act? Or would he double down on diplomacy?
3. The War in Afghanistan: It’s easy to forget, but the U.S. still has 65,000 troops waging a war in Afghanistan. How that war is ended will be a topic in the debate. Thus far Romney has criticized the President’s willingness to set a target date for withdrawal, although he’s said he would follow the same timeline. He says he would listen to the generals and do whatever they recommend. Romney has also said he would never negotiate with the Taliban the way this Administration has, but he has yet to lay out how he sees that country transitioning to full independence without dealing with the Taliban.
4. Trade with China: Romney has said Obama has been too easy on China and that on his first day in office he would declare the nation a “currency manipulator.” But beyond holding them to task on their currency, he hasn’t given much sense of how he’d handle human rights abuses in China or negotiate with the government that basically holds America’s mortgage. Obama argues he’s been plenty tough on the Chinese, taking them to court at the World Trade Organization for unfairly subsidizing their auto parts and tires. He also helped blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family leave China and has refocused U.S. military forces in a much hyped pivot to focus on Asia rather than Europe and the Middle East.
5. The Euro-Zone Crisis: It’s not on the agenda, but one issue that has huge implications for the U.S. economy is the euro-zone crisis. Romney has said little about how he’d address the matter other than mistakenly accusing Spain of profligate spending. Obama unsuccessfully pushed the G-8 to invest more in growth and less in austerity. Europe remains the biggest threat to the U.S. economic recovery, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, the heads of the two largest economies in the euro zone, are at odds with each other on how to fix their unraveling currency.