Obama wins on substance; Romney, on strategy

The Mitt Romney who showed up at last night’s foreign policy debate agreed with President Obama on the majority of issues discussed and points raised. And, because the President has been dealing with them on the ground for nearly four years, he spoke with greater specificity, authenticity and authority.  But, even though Mitt Romney did a 180 on positions he had taken throughout the long primary season, he probably achieved his strategic goal of persuading voters he is not a warmonger.

And so we were treated to Mitt Romney the peace candidate.  Mitt Romney, the builder of civil society.   At times, he spoke to the left of Obama, saying of the situation in Libya (after a 2-minute high school recitation of facts) that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”  Sounding every bit like the President, he urged working with moderate Muslims to reject extemists, providing more help with economic development, coordinating with our friends in the region, supporting education and gender equality.

Obviously, he was trying to appeal to women voters, particularly this year’s poll-tested Walmart Moms.  Obama still leads among women, but by fewer percentage points than when the series of debates began.  Obama’s best anti-Romney zingers last night may actually have turned off these women voters, who probably saw the President as too aggressive.  Romney may have been perspiring a bit, but not like Richard Nixon, and what he projected was calm, focused, yes, Presidential demeanor. He achieved his purpose. (Obama never called Romney out over his Middle East geography gaffe!)

Given how divided the country is, the race was expected to narrow before the end. But Obama blew the first debate so badly it changed the momentum in the campaign.  Obama’s solid recovery in the last two debates may have slowed growing popular vote support for Romney, but at this  point the challenger still has the wind at his back. For all those who bemoaned Al Gore’s being robbed in 2000, this time Romney could win the popular vote and lose the election. 

Obama still holds slight edges in enough of the battleground states to at least eke out a victory – if the election were held today. And even if Obama’s bounce from the last debate is very small, it could be decisive.  For every undecided who thinks Obama was too aggressive, there are more currently unmotivated past Obama voters who could get animated. Two weeks are a lifetime, and muscularity in getting people to the polls on November 6 will matter.

A final reflection on Monday’s debate: As I wrote a long time ago, when Mitt was a panelist on my WCVB Five on Five public affairs program, he was an eminently likeable and reasonable right-of-center pragmatist. When he became governor, got Potomac Fever and remade himself into a “severe conservative,” he became someone I didn’t know.

It’s worth noting that the Salt Lake Tribune, a Republican and Mormon newspaper, recently endorsed Obama saying “there are too many Mitts.”  Monday night’s Mitt was the ever so moderate one who ran against Ted Kennedy and Shannon O’Brien and got himself elected Massachusetts Governor.  The problem is: we don’t really know which Mitt Romney will take the oath of office if he garners the requisite electoral votes.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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