There's bad news for President Obama even before he squares off with Mitt Romney in tonight's third and final nationally-televised campaign debate. Polls show that Romney has already pulled even with the president on the question of which man is better able to handle foreign and defense policy -- a huge collapse of support that parallels the defection of female voters from Obama since the first presidential debate on October 5.
Many Obama supporters continue to hold out hope that the president will vastly outshine Romney by highlighting his ability to fulfill three major campaign promises -- killing Bin Laden, withdrawing from Iraq, and winding down US involvement in Afghanistan. Romney, who has no foreign policy experience to speak of -- and who largely bungled his first major overseas trip last smmer -- will be hard-pressed to suggest what he might do differently, or better, the argument goes.
But Romney may not need to score big to "win" tonight's debate. He may prevail simply by holding his own and avoiding any major missteps, while continuing to highlight his differences with Obama on China and Libya, two issues that appear to be tilting sharply the challenger's way.
China policy, in particular, seems to offer Romney distinct advantages. Polls show that the public has shifted markedly on China since the summer, when voters were far more likely to say that the US should negotiate its differences with China, rather than run the risk of setting off a mutually destructive trade war. However, in recent months growth in the manufacturing sector, which had started to look impressive, has stalled, and the public's mood towards China has soured.
Even in the second debate, which Obama narrowly won, Romney scored big on China, as he has on the stump in key swing states like Ohio, a race that increasingly looks like a dead heat. In recent weeks, Obama, wary of Romney's encroachment in a state he seemed destined to win, has started emphasizing the need for a tougher policy on China, echoing more faintly Romney's own more harsh and confrontational language.
Undoubtedly, the biggest wild card in tonight's debate is Libya. Arguably, Obama escaped serious damage on the issue in the second debate largely because Romney focused too narrowly on what the president knew about the attack -- and when he knew it -- rather than on what the attack might say about the success or failure of the administration's broader campaign against Al-Qaeda and global terrorism. But In tonight's debate, Romney is likely to call into question the success of the entire Libyan intervention and may highlight reports that American aid to insurgent forces throughout the Middle East is actually spurring Al-Qaeda's growth. Once that key point is established, Romney can return to the issue of the consulate attack to suggest that the administration misled the public about the Benghazi attack for fear of undermining the credibility of its entire anti-terror campaign post-Bin Laden. If deftly presented, Romney's argument could well place Obama on the defensive.
Despite his potential advantage, Romney is likely to be pressed to articulate an alternative policy, which hasn't been his strong suit to date, of course. Aside from "peace through strength" generalities, and declarations of stronger support for Israel, he hasn't had much to say about the Arab Spring, beyond advocating the arming of Syrian rebels and a more bellicose stance overall. The public, however, is clearly ambivalent about whether and how the US should support these movements, as well as increasingly pessimistic about Obama's current policy. This gives Romney a fresh opening to articulate a more pro-active and thoughtful strategy, if he decides to seize the initiative.
A third major question mark hanging over tonight's debate is whether news of a possible breakthrough in bilateral talks with Iran over its nuclear program will work to Obama's advantage. In theory, it could vindicate the president's claim that economic and diplomatic pressure, and judicious military interventionism of the kind that occurred in Libya, are more likely to preserve US interests at an acceptable cost, than the kind of aggressive military saber-rattling that he accuses Romney of engaging in. However, the issue could easily cut the other way. Romney is likely to suggest that only a leader that stands unshakably by Israel and that is willing to take military action, if necessary, will ever extract the necessary nuclear concessions from Teheran. The latest reports suggesting that both sides are now downplaying the prospects of a future bilateral talks may only highlight the perception that Teheran is only playing games and that no real breakthrough will occur as long as Obama is still in office.
Of course, how much of tonight's debate actually remains focused on any of these policy intricacies may be the biggest wild card of all. In addition to the possibility of verbal missteps or lapses by either candidate -- especially by Romney, perhaps -- the debate could potentially veer off into polemics that hurt or harm one or both candidates. However, if Romney can show that he's more composed and informed than expected, and that he's fully capable of exercising measured judgment and advocating nuanced action on the foreign policy front, he may allay lingering fears about the consequences of a change of government.
In this sense, a solid draw for the challenger could prove to be a decisive victory, further limiting the president's ability to regain serious momentum in the race.