BOCA RATON, Fla. — The presidential debates have enabled Mitt Romney to achieve what millions of dollars in TV ads and the better part of a year of campaigning had failed to do: Convince voters in the middle to see him as a plausible president, worthy of consideration.
That doesn't mean he'll win the election just two weeks away, but Romney's credible performances have shifted a close campaign that had been tilting in President Obama's favor. The president went into the first debate with a 4-percentage-point lead among registered voters in Gallup's daily poll. He went into the second locked in a tie. And he headed into the third trailing by 1 point among registered voters and six among likely voters.
Their final face-to-face encounter — this time in battleground Florida, and focused on foreign policy — signals the intense closeness in the most expensive election in American history. As in 2000, the country is so closely divided and the candidates so evenly matched that neither campaign is confident of victory. The outcome will set the nation on distinctly different paths when it comes to such fundamental issues as taxes, spending, health care and the role of government.
Can Romney, already favored over Obama on managing the economy, close the advantage the president has had in handling foreign policy?
The 90 minutes on stage at Lynn University offers his best opportunity to do that.
Four years ago, the debates between Obama and Republican John McCain confirmed the outlines of a race in which broad dissatisfaction with George W. Bush's presidency and a cascading economic crisis set the stage for a decisive Democratic takeover of the White House.
This time, the debates, especially the first one, gave Romney a chance before his biggest audiences ever to present himself as a man with an economic plan and to pivot to more moderate rhetoric on issues from immigration to contraception. That picture was at odds with the one the Obama camp had painted for months of a rich guy disconnected from the lives of most Americans.
"The main thrust and in some ways the sole thrust of the Obama campaign from May through September was to render Mitt Romney unacceptable as an alternative to Barack Obama," says William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a White House adviser to President Clinton and veteran Democratic strategist. "In my judgment, the first debate blew up that strategy beyond repair. ... He's not going to be able to convince people that Romney is unthinkable, unacceptable, unfit to occupy the Oval Office."
The debate's topics weren't the ones Americans say matter most. Since the opening Iowa caucuses in January, the issues of jobs, the economy and the federal budget deficit have ranked at the top of concerns in every USA TODAY/Gallup poll. On the agenda Monday night in the debate at Lynn University instead were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nuclear program in Iran, the terrorist threats from the Middle East, the economic competition from China and the U.S. role in the world.
The underlying issue as well, and the larger point being pressed by both contenders, was that of leadership in the Oval Office.
Romney portrays Obama as weak and reactive, faulting in particular his handling of the convulsive aftermath of the Arab Spring — including the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya.
Obama portrays Romney as feckless and opportunistic, ridiculing Romney for getting entangled in controversy even on what was supposed to be a photogenic visit to the London Olympics. The president warns that Romney's more aggressive stance toward Iran and Syria would risk a new war just as the United States is extricating itself from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even so, Romney already had made gains in being seen as a potential commander in chief. After the first debate, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Oct. 10-11 found Obama preferred over Romney by a single point, 48%-47%, in handling international issues. In August, the president's lead on foreign policy had been in double digits, 52%-42%.
The subject matter was thought to favor Obama, who has been dealing with these issues day-to-day for the past four years. "This should be an area of strength for him," Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who now heads the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said before the debate began. The former Massachusetts governor has less of a background on foreign policy, and he has been more prone to stumbles on it. "The issue for Romney is what his level of depth is on this stuff," Tanden says.
The debate's format differs from the previous ones. The candidates stood behind podiums at the first debate and perched on bar stools at the second. This time, they were to be seated at a table with the moderator, CBS' Bob Schieffer. He was to pose a question and give each two minutes to respond, followed by about 10 minutes of discussion.
Romney won the first debate in a knock-out, and Obama won the second on points. "This is the tie-breaker," political scientist Samuel Popkin, author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win (and Hold) the White House, said beforehand. But the setting itself may tamp down the finger-pointing interruptions that marked the last one.
"I think that format definitely calms the testosterone-strutting," Popkin said. "It's harder to play the Alpha male when you're sitting down."