The issue was teed up for Mitt Romney from the get-go at Monday night’s foreign-policy debate: What happened when four foreign-service workers were killed in Libya?
“Was it an intelligence failure? Was it a policy failure?” moderator Bob Schieffer asked. “Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened?”
The answer to the first two questions is probably “yes.” The last question, about misleading the American people, is being examined on Capitol Hill, where the Benghazi attacks are widely seen as an embarrassment for the Obama Administration.
But Romney didn’t say any of that.
Instead, the Republican challenger rattled off a litany of problems in the Middle East — from the fading hopes of the Arab Spring to the struggle of “women in public life” to the Bashar Assad regime’s killing of an estimated 30,000 civilians in Syria.
Then he mentioned Benghazi. But only briefly.
“We see in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead,” Romney said.
That was it. Opportunity missed.
That’s how much of the night went for Romney, who tacitly tried to blame Obama for much of the “chaos” in the Middle East. But when he had a shot to take, Romney didn’t at first.
And when Romney had a chance to draw clear distinctions with Obama, he often didn’t or couldn’t when it came to handling Iran, Egypt or Syria.
“What you just heard Governor Romney said is he doesn’t have different ideas. And that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing,” Obama said during a discussion about Syria.
But Romney didn’t need to win Monday night’s debate.
And the president probably won, but he probably needed a far bigger win to change the trajectory of the race. He didn’t score the type of knockout that Romney did during the first debate.
So Obama, who started to close the gap after the second debate, is likely to still trail in the polls in battleground states like Florida, albeit narrowly.
A sign Obama was behind: He went on the attack early and often with one-liners and barbs. Romney held his own, but it’s tougher to score on defense.
But, as with his previous debate performances, Obama didn’t lay out new policies as much as challenge Romney to come up with better ones.
‘NOT AN AGENDA’
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Romney said. “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East, and take advantage of the opportunity there, and stem the tide of this violence.”
Obama said Romney wasn’t clear in his statements, was “reckless.” And the president made sure to tie Romney to Obama’s still-unpopular predecessors, who went to war with Iraq and presided over the economic collapse.
“He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who’s — who shows great wisdom and judgment,” Obama said.
Despite the president’s sharper edge, it’s unclear how much this last debate will affect the race — especially in Florida, where at least 800,000 people have already voted by absentee ballots and where polls show a small portion of voters are undecided.
Also, the debate happened during Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and Monday Night Football. So the television viewership for this debate was probably smaller as well compared to the other debates.
The campaign’s “ground game” of turning out voters might play a far bigger role than Monday night’s debate about foreign policy, which is far less important to voters than the economy.
And polls indicate the economy is a strength for Romney, who shifted the discussion at one point to his five-point economic plan. The candidates talked about class sizes, unemployment and even mentioned Medicaid.
Obama made sure to mention the killing of Osama bin Laden and suggested Romney wouldn’t have done the same thing.
Knowing bin Laden’s death was Obama’s strong suit, Romney mentioned it first to take the oomph out of the issue for the president, congratulating Obama “on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.”
Obama didn’t treat Romney as kindly.
“I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after al-Qaida,” Obama said. “But I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”
But Romney repeatedly battled back when Obama said al-Qaida was being demolished.
“We’ve watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see al-Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” Romney said. “And — and they’re throughout many nations in the Middle East.”
Later, Romney said Obama had failed to label China a “currency manipulator.” Obama disagreed with Romney’s approach and noted the challenger had opposed his administration when it fought China in a trade dispute over tires.
NO CUBA TALK
Foreign trade was barely mentioned. Despite the 50th year anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, there was no discussion of Cuba policy.
Obama stayed on message, noting that his administration backed the removal of Libya’s “despot” without the loss of American troops. He also suggested Romney would want to keep more troops in Iraq, a war that Obama brought to an end.
Obama also accused Romney of considering Russia — not al-Qaida — as a top threat. Romney said Obama was twisting his words.
Romney, in turn, criticized the president’s deal, struck with Congress, that could trim $500 billion from the defense budget over a decade. Obama said the cuts wouldn’t happen, but he didn’t specify how they would be avoided.
Staying on offense, Obama criticized Romney for wanting to boost defense spending in a time of deficits.
Romney said he was trying to keep America strong and he said Obama has weakened the nation’s relations with Israel — especially over Iran.
Obama disagreed sharply and said Romney couldn’t show any real policy differences.
“I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking,” Obama said. There have been times, Governor where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that — that would make a difference.”
But whether points like that will make a difference in the presidential race is yet to be seen.