Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet onstage in Florida tonight for the third and final debate throwdown of the 2012 presidential election. After two raucous debates, the inclination to skip tonight’s third debate, which focuses on foreign policy, is understandable. The issue has taken a back burner to the economy in this year’s election, and the candidates positions are unlikely to do much to sway the few voters who remain undecided.
But with the polls still showing a virtual tie between Obama and Romney, the stakes remain very high going into tonight’s tete-a-tete. Here’s why you should watch and what’s at stake:
Obama really needs a win. The perception is that Obama holds the advantage tonight, as polls show the president remains stronger than his opponent when it comes to foreign policy and national security. But Obama has recently lost ground on these issues amid growing questions about his administration’s handling of the attacks against U.S. diplomats in Libya last month, and there is room for Romney to strike. Moreover, the most recent NBC/WSJ poll shows the candidates nearly tied on the question of who would make a better commander-in-chief. Given that Obama already is the commander in chief, he needs to put up a winning performance tonight to prevent Romney from gaining an edge on this crucial question. For Romney, on the other hand, even a tie would be a win against the incumbent.
Romney needs to redeem himself. After botching his answer on the Libya question during last week’s debate, Romney has a lot of ground to make up during tonight’s final match-up. The Republican nominee lacks foreign policy credentials, and the issues have so far been a weak spot for his presidential campaign. To make matters even more difficult for Romney, voters tend to like Obama’s foreign policy decisions. Tonight, Romney needs to perform a delicate dance of making the case against Obama’s leadership, while also embracing some of his opponent’s most popular policies.
The Libya issue is more important than you think. The weak spot for Obama tonight will be his administration’s response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which left four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador, dead. This is a key opening for Romney on national security issues, but so far, the Romney campaign has failed to effectively make a case against Obama, and even worse, has hurt the Republican candidate in the process. A full two sections, or 30 minutes, of the debate is set to focus on “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism,” so Romney will have ample opportunity to shine, or falter, on this issue.
Foreign policy isn’t the only issue on the table. While the debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy, presidential candidates are famously good at avoiding questions and talking about the issues they want to talk about. Expect Romney — and, to a lesser extent, Obama — to tie questions back to the U.S. economy, job creations, and the federal deficit.
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