Obama Loses the Debates Within the Debate

There were at least four separate debates going on Monday night when the candidates met for the last of their presidential matchups.

The foreign policy debate: This was the contest that was advertised. It largely featured agreement between the candidates. If anyone had hoped that a Mitt Romney presidency would represent a sharp break with President Obama’s policies on Iran, Iraq, Libya or Russia, they were disappointed. Only on China was there a real difference of opinion. Romney’s tougher stand on Beijing will win him points in the Midwest.

Particularly during the first third of the debate, Romney appeared shaky, weak and unsure of his ground. He got better as the evening progressed and was strong in his attacks on Obama’s apology tour, but at first he was weaker than we have seen him be in the other debates.

Romney missed the chance to go after Obama on Libya. The last thing the Republican nominee wants is a foreign policy issue in the last two weeks of the campaign when he is winning so handily on the economy.

The economic debate: Wisely, Romney took the debate back onto domestic policy by using it to remind voters of his economic agenda. About one-third of the time was devoted to the economy. And, on that issue, Romney was the overwhelming winner. Obama’s defense of his own policies and record, and his attack on Romney’s plans, was weak and even feeble. Since the economy is the major issue — and Romney now owns it — the political impact of the debate will focus on the discussion of what would, in other times, be a domestic concern.

Romney vs. Bush: The modern Democratic Party was founded during the last decade by those who came to dislike George W. Bush with an unseemly intensity. To these voters, more women than men, Bush-43 seemed like a latter day cowboy, shooting from the hip and posturing that he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” The Bush machismo left female voters alienated and the ongoing war in Iraq sapped their patience in particular.

So a big part of Obama’s campaign to keep women voters has centered on a critique linking Romney to the Bush agenda and style. But Mitt was having none of it on Monday night. Repeatedly, he invoked the need for world peace. Where he might have excoriated China, he said that its leaders wanted a world that is “open and free.” Really? I hadn’t noticed. He swore off war in Iran — unless as a last resort — and made clear that boots on the ground or even a no fly zone were not options he would consider in Syria. Nobody could depict Romney as a war-monger after this debate.

The likeability debate: Here, Romney made up for any ground he lost on the foreign policy issues. The contrast between the surly, nasty, petulant, impolite and intrusive president and the restrained dignity of his opponent was telling. Voters — particularly women — would have to come away from the contest liking Romney a lot more than they liked Obama.

Gone was the loft and majesty of Obama’s 2008 campaign and in its place was a petty politician, running scared, sounding desperate and using every chance he had to score partisan points. When Romney invoked his bipartisan work in Massachusetts, the contrast was vivid. One the one side was cooperation and on the other gridlock. And when Romney warned that, “attacking me is not a plan for the future,” the contrast was telling.

In the past three weeks, Romney has not only gained vote share but has increased his personal favorability to the point where it now exceeds the president’s. Anyone watching the third debate would rather have Romney over for dinner than Obama. And who would want to have a beer with that peevish, nit-picker of a president?

The net effect of the debate will be to help propel Romney to even higher vote shares. He was presidential, dignified and personable. He has used the debates to resurrect a languishing candidacy and make it into a presidential juggernaut.

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