The Final Showdown

The news media must be tickled pink concerning the events of the past few weeks (after all, who doesn’t love a photo finish?). What was always considered a hypothetical long shot has now in fact come true – with only two weeks left until Election Day and going into the final presidential debate, this race is all tied up. Following gaffe after gaffe and the release of a most embarrassing video, Romney has experienced a veritable surge, riding upward in the polls on the back of two strong debate performances, the most important result of both being the debunking of the Obama-generated myth that Romney is a heartless plutocratic overlord.

Tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL, President Obama and Mitt Romney will debate foreign policy, moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer.

Two months ago, this debate would have been preemptively written off as an Obama win, considering the President’s well-known strength on the issue (yes, he got bin Laden). However, that confidence in the President’s debating abilities has been thoroughly shaken after his heavily-panned performance in the first debate. While Obama certainly got back on his feet (and actually showed up) in the second debate, he has been haunted by the recent Libya 9/11 terrorist attack, or more accurately, how it was that said attack was able to occur and why Obama Administration officials couldn’t get their story straight for weeks as to what had actually happened. Expect Libya to be the centerpiece of the night’s discussion.

Even though the Libya snafu has made Obama perhaps as weak as he has ever been on foreign policy, the governor still goes into this debate as the definite underdog. Romney has pegged his candidacy on his experience in the business world and his governorship of Massachusetts, but noticeably absent from Romney’s résumé is any foreign policy experience. His running mate Paul Ryan faces a similar deficit in the field, leading to a ticket so lacking in foreign policy expertise (relative to a sitting president and vice president, that is) that Obama sardonically criticized it in his DNC speech: “My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy”.

Romney created further doubts about his ability to be Diplomat-in-Chief when his comments made during an international tour expressing doubts regarding the security of the London Olympics nearly created an international incident with our “special friend” Britain. Obama regularly criticizes Romney for the gaffe, and it’s something that Obama will surely attempt to cite in tonight’s debate.

Tonight, Romney does not have to prove that he would be able to handle international relations better than Obama – if that was the case, there would be no point in him even bothering to run. It’s objectively true that a Romney victory will be viewed negatively by most of the world, except for perhaps Israel (or more precisely, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, due to his close personal ties with Romney) and Canada, due to Romney’s promise to build the Keystone XL Pipeline and increase energy trading with our northern neighbor. It will be important for Obama to highlight this, but here is where the President will have to tread a fine line; he must make the argument that on the specific issue of foreign policy he is the far superior option and that a Romney Administration would hurt the American people by blundering into another Middle Eastern war or (again) offending our close allies (or our foes, for that matter) with undiplomatic slipups. However, he cannot make it seem like he should only be reelected due to his foreign policy skills; voters care much more about the economy and so foreign policy will need to be only one part of the Obama package. Romney, on the other hand, has to connect his foreign policy argument back to his primary electoral issue – yes, it’s the economy, stupid. Romney will need to focus his criticism not on the President’s overall foreign policy but rather on specific places where he would offer improvements that would benefit the domestic economy; key issues he will likely hit on include addressing China’s unfair currency manipulation and this Administration’s dearth of free trade deals.

But above all else, both men will be sure to tread carefully so as not to step on their own feet and make any sound-bite-worthy gaffes. This is the last debate, the last time that the American people will see both men speaking to each other face-to-face. With only two weeks left, a slip here, a fumble there, and it could be game over.