The final debate on foreign policy is in my view the cherry on top of the debate season. This is a topic which has been largely glazed over in the campaign in pursuit of more central economic messages, since the Romney campaign has viewed that as the best route to the oval office. So on the stump, Romney and Ryan are excited to talk about how they are going to create millions of jobs and repeal Obamacare. But as seen at the GOP convention, foreign policy, the wars, and veterans were left out of most of the conversation. Indeed, a top aide to Romney said they weren’t going to let the campaign be “distracted” by foreign policy. The Romney campaign knows that this debate is their weak suit, where he can’t project his jobs platform as fluidly, and where he has to answer a lot of tough questions that one might think haven’t even been discussed in Romney’s inner circle. This campaign hasn’t had much conversation about the Bush administration, and Romney has done everything in his power to make sure he isn’t within a hundred miles of Bush. But 17/23 of his foreign policy team are former Bush advisers, something that will be hard to justify as a departure from the broken Republican party of 2008, and the elephant in the room for this debate.

Before the Debate:

What Romney needs to do: Unfortunately for Romney, he made an ugly partisan attack against the administration for the attack in Benghazi, and it fell apart at last weeks debate when he was called out by the moderator. It will no doubt surface tonight in some way, and in no flattering way for Romney. He needs to clearly make a distinction between him and Obama tonight that’s more clear than merely suggesting he’s doing it all wrong, on both Afghanistan and handling Iran. Each time I’ve heard Romney speak about handling the international community, he sounds either unprepared or like a replica Dick Cheney. He needs to make sure that he doesn’t sound like a war hawk of the Bush-era and at the same time sound like he’s been versed enough on foreign policy to be worthy of commander and chief. He needs strong performance based on that world knowledge if he hopes to gain anything from the polls over Obama.

What Obama needs to do: Obama has done an astonishing amount of foreign policy work in a term that has largely been defined by domestic politics. He needs to play the professor card and dominate Romney on all of those accomplishments. He will need to hammer home how he got Osama Bin Laden, as well as talking about how successful the sanctions against Iran have been. He ended the Iraq war and is winding down the Afghanistan war, things he can claim major ground on and where Romney will have difficulty answering. He should make the clear comparison between a Bush and Romney style of running world affairs. The more he reminds voters of that, the worse.

The Debate:

Romney: It was extremely clear from Romney’s performance how little experience or knowledge he has with foreign policy that strays from economics. At several moments it appeared as if he was simply sputtering talking points he went over in rehearsal. He seemed nervous for most of the time.  It was an extremely awkward performance, where he was forced to acknowledge the effectiveness of a policy of Obama’s, but then immediately turn around and say how it wasn’t tough enough or that it should have been done sooner. It’s as if Romney was straining to point out Obama as a failure when making it perfectly clear he would have done almost nothing else. His responses were often rambling and not concise.  He mentioned twice how Obama attacking his policies wasn’t going to fix problems, both times really lame attempts to deflect Obama’s aggressive moves. He apparently didn’t realize his policies would be challenged at this debate. The only thing Romney did half well to help his performance was bringing up the economy as much as possible because he couldn’t bring enough versed material to the table. He was also lucky his comments on Obama’s handling of Libya wasn’t brought up. Remember in the first debate how many said Obama looked tired and unprepared? That was Romney times during this debate at double the political cost. Guess which debate is going to be fresh in the minds of voters?

Obama: Obama hit the ground running, first attacking Romney on his comments about Russia being our biggest geopolitical foe, and then on his belief that thousands of troops should have been left in Iraq. Several times Obama challenged Romney as a flip-flopper, calling him reckless in the formulation of various stances on world policy. He was very forceful on his attacks and showed a domination of american military and foreign policy knowledge, which was an obvious advantage for him going in because he is the sitting commander-in-chief. The best moment demonstrating this was when he schooled Romney on the evolution of the military. Romney criticized Obama for having less ships in our Navy than in 1916, and Obama quipped by saying we also have less horses and bayonets. It’s another great sound byte that’s funny and that will give Obama the kind of coverage he wants in the weeks ahead as understanding the military needs of today. He made sure to mention helping women in the middle east as well as bringing trade cases against china to help workers in Ohio, which is an obvious appeal to those crucial voting groups. Obama relished his moment to talk about killing Osama Bin Laden. He addressed Romney’s budget math as improbable and made an effective case why the military budget shouldn’t be increased drastically like Romney is proposing. He even snuck in attacks on Romney’s outsourcing during his Bain years and assertion that Detroit should have gone bankrupt. One thing I found interesting was how little Obama brought up Bush. One attack from Romney was focused on Obama’s “apology tour” where he said Obama claimed America dictated other nations. Bringing up Bush policy especially Iraq would have been an easy answer, but he opted out. I think he himself is hesitant to bring up Bush much in fear of seeming negative in places where he can fill the record with his positive accomplishments. His performance was great in its material spanned and in its style of delivery. He was more aggressive than I thought he would be. Where I thought he would let Romney come into most of policy traps, Obama forced them to his advantage. It looked fairly easy seeing  as Romney agreed with most of Obama’s policies only to immediately contradict it. He couldn’t have come out of this better.

Bob Schieffer: He definitely wasn’t the pushover that the first debates moderator was, but the style of the debate seemed to flow very similarly. He structured the 90 minutes to be mostly freelancing debate, sticking to guideline questions only after he felt sufficient dialogue had occurred. He did a good job making sure both candidates got equal time and didn’t let the explanations get too ranted or long-winded.

Final thoughts on the debates: I saw a poll where respondents thought Obama had more to lose at this debate, and that’s probably true. As is the same with the first debate, weaker performances by Obama mean much more turbulence in the polls than if Romney performs poorly, because Obama is seen as having the edge in the race and the more experienced politician. Aside from that first performance, the debates went in clear favor for the Obama team. This debate topic was an advantage for Obama, and the strong victory tonight means more than the other debates simply for the fact that it is the closest major event happening before the election.

Verdict: Clear Obama Victory