If you tally the rhetorical blows, the punches and the insta-poll results, Barack Obama came out ahead in the final two of three debates this month. Yet the overall debate math has worked out well for the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who has tied the President in national polls and narrowed the gap in what really matters this election: the crucial battleground states.
“This race is going to be incredibly close—razor-thin in some places—until the end,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday. “But we’re up or tied within the margin of error in every single swing state. That’s exactly where we thought it would be.”
It’s certainly not where things stood before the first debate, on Oct. 3. Romney was trailing Obama in the polls and had lost many supporters to some combination of verbal gaffes, nasty attack ads and a surge in Democratic enthusiasm following that party’s convention. But Romney’s focused, aggressive performance in Denver against a lacklustre, sedate Obama won the Republican the debate and brought his supporters back into the fold.
The next two debates—the town hall in Hempstead, N.Y., and Monday’s foreign policy debate in Boca Raton, Fla.—were better nights for Obama, who was sharper and landed more punches. But, it turns out, presidential debates are more like a figure-skating routine than a boxing match: technical points count, but so does style. And Romney’s routine had a very strategic choreography.
On Monday, in the final debate, he seemed more subdued, less aggressive, and even repeatedly agreed with the President. Some conservatives were incensed. Talk-show personality Glenn Beck exclaimed on Twitter, “I am glad to know Mitt agrees with Obama so much. No really. Why vote?” The more combative Obama was declared a winner by most insta-polls.
But Romney’s non-aggression appeared calculated. Flash back to the second debate, in which undecided voter Susan Katz told Romney that she blamed the country’s problems on the previous administration, asking the Republican candidate to assuage her fear that he would bring a return to the policies of George W. Bush. In response, Romney rattled off a few ways he was different from Bush—he wouldn’t run up deficits, he would crack down on China—but he didn’t address the pre-emptive war in Iraq.
Team Romney likely reviewed the video, and later comments by Katz—who said in interviews that she was not satisfied with Romney’s answer—because his performance this week seemed aimed at completing his answer to her question. Again and again, he emphasized that he was no warmonger, and with his toned-down style, tried to give the impression he was a steady hand who could be trusted with the nuclear codes.
Indeed, the word “peace” came out of Romney’s mouth no less than 12 times by night’s end. “Our purpose is to make sure the world is more peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war,” Romney said.
Romney moved assertively to distance himself from Bush, “whose policies,” said Obama, “got us into this mess in the first place”—even when it meant veering away from his own past positions. In the Republican primary debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Romney said of America’s enemies: “These people declared war on us. They’ve killed Americans. We go anywhere they are, and we kill them.” Yet in Monday’s debate, Romney, after congratulating Obama for “taking out Osama bin Laden,” added, “but we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Instead, he called for a “comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism,” citing a report by “a group of Arab scholars, organized by the UN”—demonstrating, in so doing, that he does not share the disdain of the United Nations expressed by some in his party. Their recommendation? Foreign aid, education, economic development, gender equality and rule of law. “We have to help these nations create civil societies,” said Romney, who had previously emphasized the need to cut aid to countries such as Egypt if they failed to co-operate with the U.S.
While he has long criticized Obama for not arming the rebels in Syria, Romney on Monday emphasized that he would not send U.S. troops to bring an end to Assad’s regime.
As for “our mission in Iran,” Romney said it is “to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” A far cry from his stance at a February Republican debate in Mesa, Ariz., when he argued that Obama should send a more forceful message to Iran “that we are considering military options.”
In a Republican debate in South Carolina, he criticized Obama for announcing the pullout date of 2014 for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, calling it “wrong.” By Monday, he had fully embraced Obama’s timetable: “When I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.”
And then there was the most colourful exchange of the debate. Complaining that the U.S. Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917, Romney pledged to build more ships. Obama had a response ready. “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said to laughter in the audience, “because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Obama’s zinger set off a gleeful surge of Democratic tweets (as well as fact-checks that showed that, in fact, the military has more bayonets today). But while Obama sounded clever, Romney may have gotten exactly the exchange he wanted. After all, those ships would likely be built in the shipyards of Norfolk, the second-largest city in the swing state of Virginia—home to America’s largest naval base—where the two candidates are tied, 47-47.
Before the debate, the Obama campaign had been using words like “bluster,” “blunder” and “cowboy” to describe Romney’s foreign policy. After the debate, it became a lot harder to make the case.
Campaigning in Virginia the next day, Obama fell back to accusing his opponent of flip-flopping. You might have “Romnesia,” said the President, “If you can’t seem to remember the policies on your website, or the promises that you’ve been making over the six years that you’ve been running for president, if you can’t even remember what you said last week.”
With no more debates remaining, the campaigns become ground wars for the swing states. From here on, voters in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa will be treated to multi-million-dollar TV ads and a barrage of robocalls and cold calls from a battalion of campaign volunteers, as well as sophisticated data-driven efforts that will identify supporters so campaign staffers can get them to the polls on Nov. 6.
Obama, who maintains a slim lead in swing-state polls, is clearly feeling the pressure. On Tuesday, his campaign belatedly released a 20-page booklet compiling his proposals for the next term. A Romney adviser, Kevin Madden, called it “a glossy panic button.” The campaign is printing 3.5 million copies.