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Two Takes: Obama vs. Romney Round 3

Dueling SignsVoters excited for the final presidential debate cheer during a live broadcast of Hardball with Chris Matthews at the MSNBC stage on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Photo by Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post

The third and final debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney takes the form of a 90-minute forum at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. The focus will be foreign policy with issues in the Middle East taking center stage for Monday’s event. Bob Schieffer of CBS News is moderating.

During the first two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, we asked NewsHour special contributors Rick Davis and Mo Elleithee to lead the discussion — from opposite ends of the political spectrum. (See the the pair go one-on-one for debate No. 1 and No. 2) We asked them to sit in one more time for the final debate.

Their “Two Takes” posts have prompted several comments from readers. We look forward to hearing from you once again.

We’ll update this blog occasionally through the end of the debate.

10:54 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: When you are a challenger trying to knock off an incumbent, you need to differentiate yourself. Romney essentially criticized the president on every foreign policy issue, but then endorsed his position.

Where there were legitimate differences, the president effectively pointed them out: the defense budget is in MORE jeopardy under the Romney-Ryan budget plan; Romney was weaker in going after terrorists than Obama is; Romney would keep troops on the ground in Iraq, even as the president withdrew our forces; and Romney’s economic policies would make us less competitive with China, not more.

The Republican spin so far has been that this debate won’t matter much because voters care more about the economy than foreign policy.
Maybe true.

But this debate, more than anything was about leadership. And tonight, President Obama was the only leader on the stage.

He was so much a leader that Romney ended up agreeing with most of what he said.
This was a decisive victory for the President.

10:33 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: Tonight’s debate was a contrast between two world views. President Obama is committed to disengagement, a policy of withdrawal from the world’s hot spots where the U.S. has deemed to have a strategic interest. This way we can use the withdrawal dividend to finance our government spending at home. Great politics (I guess) but creates a more dangerous world.

Governor Romney articulated a different world view. A perspective that the U.S. is its strongest abroad when its books are balanced at home. When we have a strong economy at home we can create peace throughout the world. Not financed by federal government spending but by hard working Americans creating jobs and innovation through their own initiative. Only then can we continue to exert our leadership abroad. Creating a safer world and an earned prosperity for all economies, not just our own.

This is an easy choice for any voter, one I’m confident people will make by voting for Mitt Romney.

The only wrong vote is the one that’s never cast. Please vote.

Discussion PointsPhoto by Jason Reed/REUTERS

10:13 p.m. | Mo Elleithee: Bad mistake for Romney to compare foreign trips with Barack Obama. The President used his foreign trips to rebuild alliances. Gov. Romney used his to INSULT our allies.

10:12 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Tonight we’ve seen the bold unveiling of the “Romney Doctrine” on foreign policy: Criticize everything President Obama did, then promise to do the exact same thing.

10:06 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: The president announced tonight that the Defense Department sequester will not happen. Has he done anything to stop an additional $500 billion in defense cuts through the sequester from happening? No. Has the president spent one single day working with congressional Democrats and Republicans to work out a deal to avoid these cuts to the military budget? No. Then how tonight can he dismiss these cuts with a wave of his hand by simply saying “they will not happen.” He can’t. Thousands of defense contractors, hard working patriots, are going to lose their jobs because President Obama doesn’t take these military cuts seriously.

Iran has played its proper, important role in tonight’s debate. Feverishly working toward a nuclear capability, Iran is trying to become the first terrorist nation to have a nuclear bomb. In tonight’s debate the president tried to take credit for an effective administration policy that has worked to stop Iran. Except that it hasn’t worked. He hasn’t stopped Russia or China from blocking UN sanctions. He hasn’t slowed the Iranian nuclear program and there seems to be no endgame in this administration on a nuclear Iran. Is Israel safer today than it was four years ago?

Intense DiscussionPhoto by Scott Audette/REUTERS

9:51 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Wow. The exchange on the issue of defense spending really highlighted the difference between these candidates.

Mitt Romney needs a calculator. Because he cannot increase the defense budget — even more than the Pentagon is asking for — and give massive tax cuts to the wealthy. It just can’t happen. Yet he continues to promise both massive tax cuts and broad platitudes about protecting defense.

The Secretary of Defense has said that the approach taken by Romney and Ryan would make the sequestration defense cuts MORE likely, not less.

The president, on the other hand, just talked about the need to strategically modernize the military. By looking at ways to find savings through modern technologies, rethink our overseas base structure, etc. we can save money AND keep our nation strong.
The exchange showed the value of actually knowing what you’re talking about.

9:45 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Both candidates talked about strengthening the economy as a means to strengthen our standing abroad. Rightfully so.
But the President did a MUCH more effective job of showing how his plans would make us more competitive abroad.

Focusing on science and math education and and taking way tax breaks for companies that shift jobs overseas puts us on a more competitive trajectory with our competitors. Investing in clean energy technologies, not only makes us more energy independent, but allows us to compete with countries that are moving ahead full-throttle on that issue.

Romney opposes all those things.
Romney did say he would increase trade. But didn’t say one word about how he would do it.

The President wins this round on connecting the economy to our global standing.

9:43 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: Gov. Romney effectively connected a well known fact that for the United States to be strong overseas it must be strong and healthy economically at home. He accurately connects our economic growth to our prestige and power overseas. Romney talks about how to create economic growth and all the president can do is attack. That’s not presidential leadership — it’s desperation.

President Obama wants us to believe that by leaving Iraq we were able to concentrate on Afghanistan. Then why is there rampant corruption in Kabul, continued violent attacks against Americans and an administration strategy that seems to be turning the county back over to the Taliban — not in victory but in retreat. And, we certainly don’t want to talk about what condition Obama left Iraq in in the process.

Obama supporter in Boca Raton, Fla. Photo by Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post

9:32 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Twenty minutes in, and we’re hearing a LOT of empty platitudes from Gov. Romney. But he has yet to tell us what he would do differently than the president.

But President Obama is certainly telling us what Mitt Romney would do differently.
Romney tries to sound tough on terror, but President Obama reminded us that Romney thinks Russia is a greater threat than al-Qaida. (Oh, and Romney said five years ago that “we shouldn’t move heaven and earth” to get bin Laden.)

Romney says we shouldn’t get into another Iraq — but President Obama reminded us that Romney recently said we should keep troops there.

So far, not a good night for Romney. He looks tentative. Obama looks Presidential.

9:26 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: Mitt Romney’s opening gambit: “Iran, four years closer to a nuclear bomb.” It’s too long for a bumper sticker but the impact is no less catchy. Do you believe you are safer today in the world than you were in 2008? Not a chance.

In his first test, Iranian protesters asked President Obama for help long before there was an Arab Spring and what did they get? Silence. Romney accurately points out that chaos has resulted due to this administration’s lack of vision and strategy in the Middle East and around the world.

Obama says he has isolated Syria through sanctions. Maybe he should call the Prime Minister of Iraq — his ally — who allows the Iranians to fly arms over their airspace to the Syrian dictator. The President seems helpless to defend his administration in the face of an impotent foreign policy that has finally come to roost.

Romney supporters in Boca Raton, Fla. Photo by Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post

8:20 p.m. ET | Rick Davis: It the president thought he had a high bar in the last debate, having to recover from a horrible first debate, then he must realize that he needs a knock-out blow tonight to keep hold of his presidency. If candidate Obama is unable to turn the election around tonight he will slowly continue to see his polling results fall further and further behind Romney’s continued momentum.

Mitt Romney has moved into a comfortable lead in many of the battleground states that only a few weeks ago were considered Obama leaning. Slowly but surely the turnaround since the first debate has continued putting Romney in the enviable position that a tie in tonight’s debate could mean victory on Election Day.

It’s not clear where the bright contrasts between Obama and Romney are on foreign policy, making it that much harder for a breakout performance by the president. All the news for the last two weeks on foreign policy has been bad for the Obama Administration. Syria, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq are all conspiring to sink the Obama foreign policy franchise. What’s most incredible is the Obama troubles are all by his own hand dished up by an adoring media that simply can’t ignore the administration’s failings.

The expectations tonight couldn’t be better for Romney going into the final debate.

Filming the SceneAysegul Ok, of CNN, takes photos in front of the Wold Performing Arts Center before the start of the Presidential debate. Photo by Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post

8:20 p.m. ET | Mo Elleithee: Here’s what I’m looking for in tonight’s debate.

1) The commander in chief test. There’s a reason why the president continues to lead in all polls on questions of foreign policy. He’s been a successful and strong leader on these issues. He pledged to end the war in Iraq and draw down in Afghanistan. He’s done both. He pledged to go after terrorists. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida and the Taliban are shells of what they once were. He’s pledged to strengthen our foreign alliances and put an end to cowboy diplomacy. Today, America’s standing abroad is stronger than when he took office, and we’ve worked with our allies on countless challenges as opposed to going-it-alone. Gov. Romney has so far failed miserably on every foreign policy test he’s taken. His much touted foreign trip over the summer was an unmitigated disaster as he systematically insulted our allies abroad. His shoot first, ask questions later approach at his late night press conference the night of the Libya tragedy was foolish and disastrous. Romney has a real commander in chief problem. Can he fix that tonight?

2) What would Romney actually do? Romney’s foreign policy positions are full of bluster, but no substance. He continues to attack the president on Libya and Iran. But he still has yet to say what he would do differently. The only logical next step would be to march the United States into another war. If that’s his plan, he needs to level with the American people. If it’s not, then what exactly would he do differently?

3) Defense spending. Romney continues to hammer away at the president on sequestration. No one wants these defense cuts. But Romney’s alternative would be far worse and make it more likely. As most Republican leaders have said, had the debt ceiling deal that passed last summer NOT gone through, the alternative would have been far worse and brought about another fiscal collapse. Yet Gov. Romney continues to oppose it. And the Romney-Ryan budget approach would, according to Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta, make sequestration more likely, not less. I’d expect the President to hold his feet to the fire on this.

Tonight is the final chance for voters to size these candidates up and make a decision on who’s the stronger leader. Romney has a lot of ground to make up on this measure.

Rick Davis served as campaign manager for both of Sen. John McCain’s presidential bids.

Mo Elleithee is a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential effort.

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