Boca Raton, Fla. — Mitt Romney has been here since Friday, preparing for tonight’s foreign-policy debate. Behind the scenes, Romney’s inner circle expects President Barack Obama to exploit his presidential authority. “The president will probably tell us ten times that bin Laden is gone,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney adviser. Nevertheless, Romney’s high command is confident that the Republican nominee will push back against the president’s grandstanding. “There will be some very pointed back and forth on Libya,” says Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Romney ally. “There are serious questions to be raised about the administration’s changing story.”
At a Marriott hotel, Romney has spent hours working on his strategy with Ohio senator Rob Portman, policy director Lanhee Chen, and adviser Dan Senor. They’ve been practicing in a ballroom, not far from Delray Beach. As a former businessman and governor, Romney has never claimed foreign policy as his strongest subject. But after a year of speeches and briefings, he is well versed. “Romney understands the big picture, and he has done his homework,” says John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations. “He knows how close the election is, and that given that this is the last debate, it could be dispositive.”
Bob Schieffer of CBS News will moderate the 90-minute exchange at Lynn University. Both candidates will sit at a table across from Schieffer. Two weeks ago, Schieffer published his debate agenda, and it includes segments on America’s role in the world, Afghanistan, Israel, and terrorism. Political experts also expect the candidates to discuss the New York Times’s recent scoop on Iran’s nuclear negotiations, along with Iraq, Syria, Europe’s economy, and the future of U.S.–Russian relations.
When the debates were under negotiation months ago, the Obama campaign probably saw the foreign-policy debate as its best forum. “I assume they insisted on having this as the last debate,” says former congressman Vin Weber, a Romney adviser. “If that’s the case, the calculation has changed. The president’s poll numbers on foreign policy have come down, and he’s playing defense.” The latest Pew Research poll shows both candidates in a dead heat. As Foreign Policy notes, “Voters favor Obama 47 percent to 43 percent on handling foreign policy, but that’s down from a 15-point spread in September.” Romney’s powerful turn at the first presidential debate in Denver is credited for shifting voters’ impressions.
During the second presidential debate, the lone question on foreign policy was on Libya. Romney’s advisers acknowledge that their candidate missed an opportunity, mostly due to moderator Candy Crowley’s interjection. Republican consultants believe Romney’s semantic kerfuffle wasn’t a disaster, but they agree he needs to sound crisper tonight, especially on that issue. “Look, Mitt Romney has had a number of turnovers on foreign-policy issues,” says Steve Schmidt, the former campaign manager for the McCain campaign. “This remains an economy election, but you can certainly hurt yourself if you make mistakes on national security.”
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, says that tonight isn’t so much about Romney’s winning on points, but about his appeal to undecided voters. “He’s still got to make some pitches to voters who are still curious,” he says. “This is another opportunity for him, and it will be helpful. But it will probably be a break-even debate.” Both campaigns expect television viewership to be high and that swing-state voters will be paying attention. According to a new poll conducted by Harvard’s Belfer Center, voters in Ohio and Florida list national security as a critical issue, “almost as decisive a factor as the federal deficit and more important than taxes.”
Republican leaders say Romney must critique not only the administration’s bungling but also its lack of a vision. “This may not be Romney’s strength, but I expect him to be ready to talk about how the Middle East is spinning out of control,” says former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, a member of the 9/11 Commission. “Over the course of the campaign, he has gotten more comfortable talking about his worldview.”
Part of the discussion may be about President George W. Bush’s foreign policy and Romney’s take on its various initiatives. During the second debate, Romney distanced himself from aspects of the Bush administration, and Romney’s policy advisers expect him to be pressed on this topic again. “He doesn’t have to defend the Bush record,” Bolton says. “What he can do is pinpoint how many things the Obama administration has adopted. [Guantanamo Bay] is still open, and there is a long list of other things they’ve validated, including drone strikes on American citizens who have taken up with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.”
Bolton predicts that Romney will argue more, however, about the Obama administration’s failures, from its handling of the Arab Spring to its handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. “It’s going to be a very sharp contrast in their respective views of America’s place in the world,” Bolton says.
Dave Carney, a Republican operative and former adviser to the Rick Perry presidential campaign, says Romney will have to handle the Bush question with caution. “As he has already done, he needs to distance himself a little bit,” Carney says. “He needs to be sure-footed and focus on the president. The president is confident on this topic, but it could be his weakest and most dangerous debate since there will be extended conversation about what happened in Libya.”
According to campaign sources, Romney is eager to blast the president’s leadership. From speeches to op-ed articles, Romney has spent much of October hitting the president’s approach to global politics. “For the last four years, we’ve had a foreign policy led by a president who believes that the strength of his personality is going to get people to do the right things,” Romney said at a recent rally. “Well, we’ve seen fires burning in U.S. embassies around the world.”
During debate prep, Romney has spent time honing his approach. Unlike the economic debate, where he could wield data as weapons, Romney will have to make a broader case against President Obama’s foreign policy, mixing up examples of bureaucratic incompetence with larger questions. “Foreign policy has become a character issue,” Sununu says. “People are realizing that whenever you hear about foreign policy, you’re getting dishonesty out of the White House.
“Romney was competent and capable in the first two debates and needs to use this debate to finish those opening statements,” says Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa. “He projected a presidential image, and tonight, he’s going to have to do that again.” In such a high-stakes setting, Romney will also need to stay loose. “He will have to prepare, perhaps, for a moderator’s interruption,” King chuckles.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.