DENVER – When Mitt Romney walked on to the stage three weeks ago at the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, the Republican challenger faced a “must win” situation. He was lagging behind President Obama in national polls, trailing in several key swing states, and struggling to energize his supporters.
But at Monday night’s third and final debate in Florida, it was Mr. Obama who found himself in need of a game changer.
Mr. Romney came into the debate with an expanded lead over the president, a fact not lost on Mr. Obama, who defended his foreign policies and tried numerous times to tie the former Massachusetts governor to former president George W. Bush.
“The world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office,” said Mr. Obama. “Governor Romney has…praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment.”
“I’ve got a policy for the future and agenda for the future. And when it comes to our economy here at home, I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay,” Mr. Romney shot back.
Moderator Bob Schieffer opened the debate with a question about the terrorist attack in Libya that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
The Obama Administration has come under fire in the wake of the attacks for initially characterizing the well-organized assault on the consulate compound as a “spontaneous demonstration” in response to an obscure internet video critical of Islam.
“[I]t’s important to step back and think about what happened in Libya,” said Mr. Obama. “Keep in mind that I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years.”
Romney declined to criticize Mr. Obama for the recent controversy, choosing instead to talk more broadly about Mr. Obama’s policy failures in the Middle East.
“With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead, we’ve seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events,” said Romney, referencing tumult in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt.
Romney also called Iran “greatest threat of all,” adding that Mr. Obama’s policies had brought Iran “four years closer to a nuclear weapon.”
Mr. Obama’s Iran policy has been the subject of speculation in recent days, thanks to a weekend report in the New York Times that Obama Administration officials had “agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations” with Iran on the hard-line Islamic regime’s controversial nuclear enrichment program, a charge Mr. Obama denied on Monday night.
“Well, first of all those are reports in the newspaper. They are not true,” said Mr. Obama. “But our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place. Because they have the opportunity to reenter the community of nations, and we would welcome that.”
“I think from the very beginning, one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration, and felt that the [Obama] administration was not as strong as it needed to be,” Romney countered. “Now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium, preparing to create a nuclear threat to the United States and to the world.
Romney also used the segment on Iran to critique Mr. Obama’s handling of relations with Israel, which have been strained during Mr. Obama’s term in office.
The president has had a particularly tense relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – tension that became public last year during a G-20 meeting of world leaders in France when an open microphone captured Mr. Obama and France’s then-President Nicholas Sarkozy criticizing the Israeli prime minister.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” the French leader told Obama.
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied at the time.
That chilly relationship was on display again in September when Mr. Obama declined a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Netanyahu during a United Nations session, citing scheduling conflicts.
Romney took aim at the repeated snubs Monday night.
“[Y]ou went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel,” said Romney.
Mr. Obama did not directly respond to Mr. Romney’s charge, talking instead about a trip he took to Israel as a candidate.
The candidates also squared off over how best to deal with a rising China, which has emerged as a key concern for many union voters in traditionally Democratic states, who worry that cheap Chinese labor and state-subsidized companies are killing blue-collar jobs in America.
Mr. Romney has criticized Mr. Obama throughout the campaign for failing to pursue a harder line with an increasingly aggressive China, repeatedly pointing to the fact that more than 500,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost during Mr. Obama’s term in office, according to the Department of Labor.
“China is both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules,” said Mr. Obama. “So my attitude coming into office was that we are going to insist that China plays by the same rules as everybody else.”
But Mr. Romney suggested that Mr. Obama’s tough talk on China hasn’t been backed up with tough action over the last four years.
“I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency…That’s got to end,” said Romney. “That’s why on day one, I will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs.”
China became the world’s top manufacturing country by output last spring, edging past the U.S., which had held the top spot for the preceding 110 years, according to the Financial Times.
In the post-debate spin, political pundits were divided.
“[Obama] was more articulate, more coherent and more presidential,” said Carville, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton.
By a margin of 48 to 40 percent, respondents of a post-debate CNN/ORC poll agreed with Mr. Carville, giving the edge to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Romney also received high marks from those polled, however.
The same CNN poll, for example, found that 60 percent of those polled said they believed Romney could handle the job of commander-in-chief.
But in the battle for independent voters, the debate may have been a draw.
When asked which candidate they would be more likely to vote for after Monday’s debate, 25 percent of those polled answered Mr. Romney, while 24 percent said Mr. Obama.
CNN contributor and former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that the debate was not the decisive victory Mr. Obama was hoping for.
“When it comes to voter behavior, I don’t think this debate changed a thing,” said Fleischer.