Yes, we know this debate is supposed to be about foreign policy. But the smart candidate who wants to win won't spend 90 minutes talking about foreign policy. Instead, he will find every opportunity to pivot and talk about how the decisions we make economically (deficits/debt, energy, trade, outsourcing, etc.), decide what kind of foreign policy we can and will have into the future. This has to be Gov. Romney's and President Obama's game plan.
If you want to know who is winning this debate, keep asking yourself this question: Who is talking about foreign policy in terms of the economic issues (creating jobs, cutting deficits and the debt, competing better globally) that matter most to me?
During the last debate, Romney made a critical error on Libya. We can argue about the semantics of what the president said and when he said it, and whether Romney was correct generally in his criticism but wrong specifically, but there's no arguing that it was a needless unforced error.
Romney will not make that specific mistake again, but don't expect President Obama to ignore or deflect the attack, either. President Obama needs a clear explanation of why it took so long to declare Benghazi a terrorist attack, while Romney will have to contain himself from overreaching. This will be critical moment and it will come early in the debate.
It's fair to say that the American people are exhausted from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the last thing they want is a president who implies that another war may be coming. Romney needs to tread lightly here. Obama will try to imply that Romney's positions on Iran and the Middle East are dangerous and could trigger another war.
Romney needs to show that Obama's policies have not made America safer and more secure. Each will have to balance his desire to display strength with the desire of swing voters for someone who will lead this country away from more war, not towards it. The winner of this exchange could well win the entire debate.
How many times will Bin Laden's name come up on Monday night? A lot. The president will tout his leadership and the decision to get Bin Laden and will hammer Gov. Romney on his past statements expressing lukewarm support for the effort to find and kill him. Romney will respond by giving the president credit for his decision, but he is also likely to suggest that Al Qaeda is growing stronger across North Africa and other parts of the world today thanks to a less muscular foreign policy.
Who will win this exchange? The president has the edge, but the question is whether Romney raises enough doubts to mitigate the advantage President Obama has gained thanks to the elimination of Bin Laden.
If the last debate was an indication, Obama and Romney will disagree a lot tonight. Our advice: Tread very carefully. While the core constituencies may love heated debates, swing voters do not. Remember, this is not about just winning a debate, but pushing a message and narrative that helps define your campaign for the final two weeks. Voters, especially swing voters, want to hear answers, not accusations. If the candidates behave as they did last week, you'll hear lots of complaints. More important, when it comes to foreign policy, no one has any tolerance for heated partisanship or blatant politics.
So, there you are.
We hope you'll watch, and please tune in to the AOL debate focus groups and see what undecided voters think of this final showdown and whom they are most likely to vote for on Nov. 6.