Another debate brought out another version of Mitt Romney. This third time around, the chameleon candidate was not the hard-charging neo-con hawk of the primaries. Instead, he talked about peace, negotiations and using military power as a last resort.
He also was not the pushy CEO who commandeered the first debate or the combative sparring partner of Debate 2. From the first minute in this discussion of foreign policy, President Obama tried to pick a fight, but Romney was just ducking punches. Heck, after the Romney smack-down Jim Lehrer suffered back in the first debate, Bob Schieffer, Monday night’s moderator, was barely even badgered by this kinder and gentler Mitt.
Yes, Romney took shots at Obama's foreign policy, calling it weak and apologetic, but then he proceeded to agree with the nearly every aspect of what the president has done, from Libya to Iran. He abandoned his criticism of Obama's timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and said he would bring the soldiers home on the same schedule. He also eschewed past complaints that Obama had abandoned Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and indicated he too would have let Mubarak take the fall.
Romney's foreign policy as of Monday night seems to be "me too!"
Will this worry the hard-line Republican foreign policy cadre? No, why should it? Romney has proved time and again just how malleable he is on any and all issues. These tough guys who brought us the Iraq war know they will be back in charge at the Pentagon and at the State Department in a Romney administration. For now, they will give him a pass to do anything it takes to get elected.
In the eyes of voters, did meek equal weak? Probably not. Though there was general agreement among the punditocracy, including the fire-breathers at Fox News, that Obama won the debate, and though that view was backed up by all the instant polls, Romney walked away with no more than a scratch. His goals were to commit no gaffes, dispel fears that he is eager to rush into another war and sneak in one more recitation about his five-point plan for the economy. He achieved what he set out to do.
Sure, there were moments when Obama made Romney look like the naive new kid auditioning for a role on the international stage. Responding to Romney’s expression of concern that the Navy has fewer ships now than it did in 1916, the president sarcastically suggested that maybe Romney had failed to notice that the military also has fewer bayonets and horses these days and, oh, by the way, there are now these really big ships called aircraft carriers on which airplanes land.
Obama got in another dig when he recalled his trip to Israel during the 2008 campaign, which included a visit to families in a border town that had been decimated by Hamas missiles, and compared it with Romney's Israel tour earlier this year in which the centerpiece event was a big campaign fundraiser.
It all added up to a win for Obama, but not necessarily a loss for Romney. Today, Romney will be back to the core effort of the campaign's final two weeks: trying to change the electoral math by flipping Florida, North Carolina and Virginia his way and then moving on to the campaign's ground zero -- Ohio, the place where just a handful of voters will decide who will run America’s foreign policy for the next four years.