Here was Mitt Romney's debate strategy for the final face-off with Barack Obama: Don't let the path of least resistance be the enemy of the good.
On virtually every issue brought up by moderator Bob Schieffer, Romney didn't even try to show daylight between himself and the president, instead preferring a casual argument against the tenor of Obama's leadership.
By not contesting Obama on points, and by agreeing with his policies on drone strikes, on Iraq, on China, on Iraq, and on Afghanistan, Romney was betting that he did not need to take risks, and stands a better shot at winning the election the more people associate him with the economy.
Deciding to let Obama once again be the aggressor carries real risks, because of the large audience, and because the contrasts in tone between the two candidates could be large enough that some voters who initially thought Romney crossed the credibility threshold might have second thoughts.
For Romney's campaign, his first debate performance energized reluctant Republican voters and a soporific performance in the third won't endanger those voters, and it won't turn off women voters who (according to the stereotype and some polling) aren't comfortable with warmongering. For Romney, Obama's biggest weakness now is that voters don't think he has a good enough agenda for the next four years. That's why Romney twice trotted out a new line: "Attacking me is not an agenda."
Make no mistake, though: This Romney was not the Romney you'll see on the stump. "I love teachers" is not something he usually says. He is much more aggressive, implying that he'll be quicker to use military force, to assert American primacy, to take risks in order to directly further American interests, and generally lead through demonstrations of strengths. He doesn't emphasize, as he did Monday night, gender equity, and middle class development, and a comprehensive socio-political strategy for the Arab world.
During the first debate, Obama let Romney get away with his tonal and positional contortions. Not this night. Romney "simply just wasn't telling the truth." He was "airbrushing history." He was "just wrong."
Romney wisely avoided getting entangled in the details of foreign policy. His campaign thinks that Obama is losing credibility on foreign affairs because of the chaos associated with Libya and Syria that people see on their televisions.
And his relative meekness tonight, when compared to Obama's A-game, reflects a more confident campaign, or at least one that is relatively at ease with the flow of the race. That's why Obama wanted a fight: He wants to get back to the halcyon days of the summer, when Obama's campaign had all but disqualified Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat. The attack has changed: Obama focused closely on Romney's inexperience and his vacillation.
His two biggest zingers, including a rebuttal to Romney's assertion that the U.S. Navy's ship roster is too small, took aim at Romney's relative inexperience: "We also have fewer horses and bayonets," he said. Romney was passive and did not respond.
In football terms, Romney knelt into the victory formation after every answer. Or he played, in Chuck Todd's view, "prevent defense" all night. Maybe he let Obama run up the score too much.
A final point: As much as Obama's aggressiveness suggests he knows he doesn't have the election sewn up, Romney's long explanation on the auto bailout shows that he knows why he's losing in the industrial Midwest, where the auto bailout has been Obama's most successful issue. "I love American cars," he said. "I would not do one thing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.
The headline of Romney's 2008 New York Times article, which comes up in almost every Obama commercial in Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin, was: "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Romney wanted government to provide guarantees to private companies that would recapitalize auto companies. But no private capital was available. Romney did not believe that the government should directly bail the companies out, which it did. "The people of Detroit don't forget," Obama said tonight.
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