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Debate Topic Could Limit Romney's Closing Argument

Debate Topic Could Limit Romney's Closing Argument

By Scott Conroy - October 22, 2012


From the day he announced his candidacy in June 2011, Mitt Romney has grounded his case for the Oval Office in what he calls President Obama's failure to reinvigorate the economy, asserting that his own business background gives him the experience and skill set to do a better job.

Romney’s strategists have tinkered with that sales pitch from time to time and have emphasized other issues to varying degrees, but what has not changed is their overriding belief that the election will be won or lost on the concern that voters have consistently rated as most important to them.

The parameters of the third and final presidential debate on Monday, therefore, pose a challenge for the Republican nominee: How does he make a strong final pitch to tens of millions of TV viewers when debating foreign policy rather than domestic issues?

Even as Romney has made inroads convincing undecided voters of his abilities as an economic steward, he is running against a president whose approval rating on foreign policy remains high. What’s more, Romney has twice missed recent opportunities seemingly tailor-made to cut into the incumbent’s advantage on this front.

Despite this challenge, the Romney camp says it has no qualms about his ability to make a persuasive overall closing argument when CBS News’ Bob Schieffer moderates the final head-to-head battle of the campaign Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla.

“I think Americans will care about the standing of America in the world, and I think instinctively they understand and believe that America’s standing in the world has been damaged by Barack Obama over the last four years,” said Romney’s policy director, Lanhee Chen. “And so part of the case that we’re going to be making on Monday is: Look at the results. Look at the outcome of what Barack Obama’s leadership has gotten. And we believe it’s gotten us to a place where America’s leadership isn’t as strong.”

Republicans outside the campaign have expressed frustration over the challenger’s failure to take advantage of prime opportunities to press Obama on the Sept. 11 consulate attack in Libya, most recently after the lone foreign policy question of Tuesday’s debate. (The question concerned who was to blame for the lack of adequate security at the consulate, which led to the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.)

Rather than hammering home his case about the administration’s failure to assess adequately the threat that preceded the attack, along with its muddled response afterward, Romney followed a stern rebuke from Obama with a semantic argument over the president’s initial characterization of the event. Suddenly, it was the Republican who was forced to assume a defensive posture on the issue.

Romney surely will be prepared this time not to make the same mistake.

“We’re happy to talk about foreign policy and the great, sweeping failures of the Obama administration,” said chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens. “When people turn on the television now, I don’t think the first thing they think is, ‘Wow, things have really worked out great.’ Usually seeing embassies in flames is not considered a positive sign that things are working out well.”

Romney, however, has gone quiet on the Benghazi attack since the last debate, suggesting that he would prefer to step back and frame his overall argument in broader terms.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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