Obama takes fight to Romney in final debate
DENVER — In the hours leading up to Monday’s third and final presidential debate, word leaked that Mitt Romney’s pre-game meal was a veggie burger, while President Barack Obama chowed down on steak and potatoes.
Ultimately, it foreshadowed another 90 minute exchange defined by a sharp contrast: a president looking to pummel his opponent and to sway swing voters with a lot of rhetorical red meat and a calm challenger trying to convey the steadiness the country might want in a new Commander in Chief.
Post-debate polls confirmed that most viewers felt Obama won the debate itself. But, given the momentum behind Romney, the Republican candidate likely didn’t do anything to lose the surge of enthusiasm that he hopes will carry him to an electoral college win on Nov. 6, even though the math still narrowly favors the president.
“President Obama looked to me like he thought he was behind, that he was scrambling and needed to land a few blows to catch up,” political analyst Eric Sondermann told FOX31 Denver following the debate. “Mitt Romney, on the other hand, looked pretty comfortable with where he is.”
Obama went on the offensive right from the start, attacking Romney for positions on foreign policy that “have been all over the map.”
Romney, looking to deflect the attack itself without rebutting it, chided Obama.
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” he said. “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East.”
In many instances, Romney, took a far less hawkish tone than he regularly has on the stump.
After attacking the Obama administration for its uneven response to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Romney, after flubbing that attack in the second debate last week, let the issue lie; and he said he actually agreed with President Obama’s policy in some areas, including his use of sanctions to punish Iran for pursuing a nuclear program.
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions,” Romney said. “I would have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.”
On the same subject, Obama looked to sound firm and strong.
“As long as I’m President of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” Obama promised, while criticizing Romney for sounding as though he wanted to go to war preemptively.
“He’s often talked as if we should take premature military action,” Obama continued. “I think that would be a mistake, because when I’ve sent young men and women into harm’s way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort.”
“This nuclear follow of theirs is unacceptable to America; and, of course, a military action is the last resort,” Romney responded. “It is something one would only — only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”
After ripping Romney early for stating that Russia was the country’s number one “geopolitical foe” — “the 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back” Obama chirped — the president continued to portray Romney as a naive foreign policy novice, especially after Romney defended his proposal to increase military spending by $2 trillion that, in Obama’s words, “the Pentagon isn’t even asking for.”
Romney argued that the Navy fleet is old and shrinking.
“Our Navy is smaller now that at any time since 1917,” Romney said. “I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required of our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.”
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama responded. “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.
“We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. It’s not a game of battleship, it’s a question of what are our capabilities.”
Romney, who’s repeatedly leveled the charge that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” on the campaign trail, treaded more lightly on the subject Monday night, arguing only that Obama has sought “to put daylight between” the U.S. and Israel and noting that Israel “noticed” that Obama traveled to other Arab countries early in his term but not to Israel.
Obama, who mentioned Israel repeatedly during the debate, called Israel “our greatest ally”, stronger language than he’s used previously.
For the most part, Romney was satisfied to hit Obama broadly for a foreign policy that’s, in the GOP nominee’s view, at least somewhat to blame for many of the crises around the globe.
“You look at the record of the last four years and say is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes,” Romney said. “Is — is al-Qaeda on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years.”
Romney succeeded in avoiding any game-changing gaffes; however, it was Obama who spoke most memorably about giving the go-ahead to the secret mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, the 9-11 mastermind who was hiding in Pakistan.
Romney sought to deflate that as an issue in the debate by lauding Obama for approving the mission early on in the debate.
“I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al Qaeda,” Romney said. “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Obama, who responded by sarcastically applauding Romney for finally recognizing the threat posed by al Qaeda, returned to the subject later in the debate as he responded to a broader attack from Romney that his foreign policy has made the U.S. less safe.
Obama, as he did early on, told Romney that his positions on foreign policy have “been all over the map”, citing Romney’s prior statements on the bin Laden mission.
“You said, well, any president would make that call,” Obama told Romney. “But when you were a candidate in 2008, as I was, and I said if I got bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man.
“And you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan permission, we would not have gotten him. And it was worth moving heaven and earth to get him.”
Obama then sought to make an emotional connection with voters by pivoting to an anecdote.
“After we killed bin Laden, I was at Ground Zero for a memorial and talked to a young woman who was four years old when 9/11 happened,” Obama said. “And the last conversation she had with her father was him calling from the Twin Towers, saying, ‘Peyton, I love you and will always watch over you.’
“And for the next decade, she was haunted by that conversation. And she said to me, ‘You know, by finally getting bin Laden, that brought some closure to me’.
“And when we do things like that, when we bring those who have harmed us to justice, that sends a message to the world and it tells Peyton that we did not forget her father.”