What to expect in tonight’s US debate

Foreign policy is not very high on the voters’ list of concerns this year. It is all the economy and jobs.

Some tips on what to watch for in tonight’s final presidential debate:

Will the candidates stick to foreign policy?

Foreign policy is not very high on the voters’ list of concerns this year. It’s all the economy and jobs. But with optimism on the economy beginning to revive, Republicans are hoping to gain some traction on other issues – like national security.

Watch for Mitt Romney to try to steer the debate toward the economic implications of every question. He will be eager to take up the issue of job losses to China. President Obama will call attention to the record of outsourcing jobs at Bain Capital, Romney’s former company. The fact is, only a small proportion of US jobs have gone to China. But the issue is deeply emotional to American workers and the resentment of China is real.

Romney will also warn of the economic implications of the radical cuts in defense spending that could go into effect at the end of the year if there is no budget agreement between the President (who will still be Obama until January 20) and Congress. But Republicans as well as Democrats voted for those cuts – including Paul Ryan. So it’s not clear that Romney can put the responsibility on the President.

Can Republicans turn Obama into Jimmy Carter?

They’re certainly trying. But the Libya issue does not have the resonance of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi, but the circumstances are still unclear. Nevertheless, Romney will try to blame the Obama Administration for lack of security preparation. He will also charge that the Democrats’ claim to have weakened al-Qaeda is false. The terrorist network is still able to mount deadly attacks on Americans.

Obama will seize every opportunity to point out that Osama bin Laden is dead. Muammar Gaddafi is dead. Anwar al-Awlaki is dead, And much of the leadership of al-Qaeda has been eliminated.

In 1980, foreign policy was a weak point for Carter, re-enforcing his economic problems. In 2012, foreign policy is a strong point for Obama. That’s where he gets his highest ratings.

How will Obama target his foreign policy message?

At women voters. Obama can’t win without strong support from female voters, and some recent polls show his lead among women slipping.
Obama will try to warn that Romney’s policies could get the United States involved in another war in the Middle East – in Iran, or Syria. Women tend to be antiwar. Obama will point out that his Administration has gotten the US out of wars in Iraq and soon in Afghanistan. Americans generally, and women in particular, are very weary of war. The war in Afghanistan is now as unpopular as the Iraq war was in 2006.

Will Israel be a big issue?

It will, mostly because Romney will charge Obama with being unreliable on Israel.

Israel is becoming more of a partisan issue in the US It has never been a partisan issue. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has more or less signalled his support for Romney, and the Democrats made a significant blunder when they initially left any mention of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel out of their party platform. It was later added after a difficult and controversial delegate vote at the Democratic convention.

American voters are generally sympathetic to Israel, but it is not a issue that drives many votes. Even most Jewish voters say other issues are more important. Jewish voters are only two per cent of the electorate, and most of them live in non-battleground states like New York and California. But the Israel issue is also important to non-Jewish conservatives, who see it as a sign of Obama’s unreliability in foreign affairs. Romney can use Israel to rally conservatives, not just Jewish voters, most of whom will vote for Obama.

Bill Schneider is a Resident Fellow at Third Way, a Washington think tank.  Professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. 

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