HIGHLAND BEACH, Fla. — Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama go into their final debate Monday burdened with the knowledge that 90 minutes in Boca Raton can make or break their candidacy.
The 2012 debates have turned out to be meaningful: Obama threw away his lead in a single night by dozing through Denver, giving Romney a chance to get a second look from voters who had not been leaning toward him.
Neither was able to maximize the second debate at Hofstra last week.
The third debate, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, is devoted to foreign policy — and comes on the 50th anniversary of the day when President John Kennedy announced the Cuban missile crisis, with Soviet weapons 90 miles from the Florida coast.
Here’s what to watch for:
Who can create a moment that is memorable, so much so that it is game-changing?
These debates provide a torrent of information, and Romney and Obama have yet to master consistently making the complex simple enough to land punches with impact.
I’m talking about something powerful: It can come through body language, a gaffe, a putdown or by a brilliant, simple statement of a policy or a vision that will be seen as instantly compelling by the undecided or persuadables.
With many battleground states early voting — it starts Oct. 27 in battleground Florida — wavering voters may figure they’ve heard enough by Tuesday to go vote and tune out the rest of the campaign.
Who will be first to flip foreign policy questions into a discussion of what this means to domestic economic policy? The winner of the debate may well be who is forceful about making the connection that a strong U.S. globally helps the pocketbook locally.
Polls show voters rank, on the whole, concern over international affairs below domestic economic issues. The campaign started with the economy the top issue and that’s how it is ending. By the way, another jobs report is out at the end of next week — Nov. 2.
Can Obama close? He was too polite in the Hofstra debate over the Libya exchange, appealing to moderator Candy Crowley to call a strike on Romney over his assertion that Obama took his time to label as terrorist acts the Sept. 11 murders of four U.S. citizens in Libya, including the ambassador, Chris Stevens.
Obama can’t depend on anyone but himself to make the case for a second term — or to prevent voters from giving Romney yet again a second look. And though Obama is loath to engage in “serial fact-checking,” it’s his job to correct the record.
Can Romney close? He threw away an opportunity to nail Obama at the last debate over the administrations’ shifting story about what happened in Libya on Sept. 11.
How will Obama answer — or in a pre-emptive move bring up — the matter of who and why more security was rejected for the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Will Romney revisit “binders? With the women’s vote crucial — and Romney making gains in a demographic Obama had a lock on in 2008, Romney created a problem for himself at Hofstra with his “whole binders full of women” remark, referring to his female recruitment while Massachusetts governor.
Will the debate stray south of the border? Debate moderator Bob Schieffer has said he will devote two portions of the debate to the Middle East and terrorism. Presumably that will cover the attack at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, relations with Israel and how to shut down Iraq’s nuclear capacity.
So the question is, will Romney or Obama bring up or engage in exchanges over Cuba, Latin America, South America and the Caribbean? Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, is up for grabs, and large pockets of voters here have roots in or economic interests with these regions.
Will Romney use his “Obama has no plan for the next four years” newest line of attack now that Obama and his team have had days to figure out a pithy way to respond? Is it a risk worth taking, or better left to the paid ads?
Meanwhile, on the Sunday shows, pre-debate skirmishing set the stage for Monday.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in Florida working Sunday mainly to shore up the Jewish vote for Obama, was a headliner on ABC’s “This Week.” Host George Stephanopoulos asked Emanuel about Obama not answering at Hofstra the question about security at the Benghazi consulate.
Emanuel, in answering, slammed Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for posting online sensitive State Department documents about Libya.
Issa, said Emanuel, “put people at risk in Libya, and people around the world will now know that you are at risk if you cooperate with the United States. That office — that chairmanship of that committee comes with responsibility, and you cannot act reckless with it.”
On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) provided what may be a preview of how Obama handles Iran.
Said Durbin, “I think it’s a clear indication that the sanctions regime that President Obama has put together with Israel and many nations around the world is putting pressure on Iran to sit down and finally acknowledge that they cannot have a nuclear weapon.”
The debate starts at 8 p.m. Chicago time.