Will tonight's debate matter?

Tonight’s the third and final debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, one that Democrats initially thought might close the deal with voters — but now looks more like a minefield than ever.  They may not need to worry — or for that matter, hope — because while the news has focused on the topic of tonight’s event, foreign policy, voters appear more focused than ever on the economy and jobs.  Furthermore, there’s probably not a lot of upside for either candidate.

Greg Sargent outlines the strategy as he sees it from the Left:

Throughout this campaign, Obama has frequently invoked Bush’s economic policies to argue that a Romney presidency would take us back to an approach that landed us in the mess we’re still digging our way out of four years later. That’s had mixed results, given that polls still show Obama and Romney tied on the economy — or a Romney edge.

But it may be a lot tougher for Romney to escape Bush’s shadow tonight, when the debate turns to foreign policy. That’s because Romney’s business background gives him a way to present himself as an alternative to Obama and Bush on the economy. When it comes to foreign policy, Romney will be harder pressed to present himself as an alternative to both presidents.

Indeed, in tonight’s debate, Obama’s message will be simple:

1) We got Osama Bin Laden

2) We’re ending Bush’s wars

3) Mitt Romney’s got nothing but more Bush bluster

The pairing of those first two points may prove powerful, since it combines a major national security success with the ending of an unpopular war. Romney, meanwhile, will make the case that Obama is a weak and ineffective leader who has damaged America’s standing in the world. He’ll point to the Libya attacks, and he’ll argue that he will be tougher than Obama has been in preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, to bolster that argument.

Yes, that’s the problem as I see it for Obama, not Romney.  Those three points pretty much sum up all Obama has working for him in foreign policy at the moment, and the third one is very debatable.  Osama bin Laden is no longer relevant to voters, especially in the wake of a successful terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi that the Obama administration apparently never saw coming, one that may well have been conducted by al-Qaeda. Ending “Bush’s wars” actually only applies to Iraq; Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, and he ended the war in Iraq on Bush’s timeline and plan.  (Remember “sixteen months”?)  This strategy is basically a rehash of 2008, with Obama attempting to swap Mitt Romney for John McCain.

My colleague at The Week, Paul Brandus, outlines the Romney strategy, and partly rebuts Sargent’s run-against-Bush strategy:

Romney has a different view: He’ll say Obama has made America weaker. He’ll say that Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy in the Middle East has helped that volatile region spin out of control, and enabled the rise of new leaders who view America less favorably than before. To make his point, Romney will mention Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who, along with three other Americans, died in a terror attack on our consulate in Benghazi six weeks ago. And there’s no doubt that Romney – a lifelong friend of Benjamin Netanyahu — will accuse Obama of being ambivalent toward Israel and soft on China.

There’s a déjà vu quality to much of this: The outsider always criticizes those in power, and this year it’s Romney’s turn to be holier than thou. The Republican nominee  — whose less-than-smooth trip to Europe and Israel in July wasn’t exactly statesmanlike — thinks he knows better and has all the answers.

Of course, that’s what Obama thought in 2008. Back then, the junior senator from Illinois also thought he knew better. He was highly critical of George W. Bush’s national security policies — but as president, Obama stepped up the war in Afghanistan, tripling the U.S. footprint there. He extended key provisions of Bush’s Patriot Act. He ordered a big increase in drone strikes on terror targets. For a guy whose opponents have painted him as pro-Muslim, it’s important to note that those drone strikes have infuriated the Muslim world and helps explain why Obama is deeply reviled in much of the region.

Normally, a sitting President has an advantage in foreign policy, which is one reason why the Democrats kept insisting that they would make the election hinge on it — until the Benghazi terror attack and the fumbled response afterward.  Most incumbents have more experience in this arena than most challengers just by dint of their four years in office, and that’s the case here as well.  However, Romney is very well versed in foreign policy, especially trade, as I discovered in 2007 when I interviewed him in Iowa during his first presidential run, so he won’t be a pushover.

Furthermore, the format will be less of an issue for Romney, who actually did surprisingly well in the townhall format.  Obama will have to stay behind a podium seated at a table, and even if he gets energetic, he’s unlikely to pursue his poorly-chosen strategy of constant interruptions from the last debate.  Bob Schieffer will be under considerable pressure to put a stop to that from both candidates, as well as watch the time more closely.  Given the White House refusal to provide a representative to talk about Libya two weeks ago, he might be interested in pressing Obama more than Candy Crowley did last week, too.

However, I don’t think this is going to be a deal closer for either candidate.  A source on the Romney campaign told me that they got a lot more boost out of Romney’s arguments on the economy in the second debate than his criticism of Obama over Benghazi and foreign policy.  It’s the economic argument that voters are most closely watching, which has already been laid out by Team Romney and fought largely on their terms.  The real value in a foreign-policy debate is to see whether a challenger can stack up in presidential bearing to an incumbent — and that question got answered decisively in the first debate.  Don’t expect this debate to produce any huge wins or losses for either side, and that means Obama is going to be in trouble regardless after tonight.

Note: I will not be watching the debate tonight, as I will be in school this evening.  Be sure to keep an eye on Hot Air for instant commentary from Allahpundit, Erika Johnsen, and Mary Katharine Ham as the debate proceeds!

Update: I’ve gotten a few e-mails reminding me that both candidates will be seated at a desk/table rather than standing behind podiums.  I’ve made the change above.

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