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Did Romney just move another small step toward the presidency?

This morning, I wrote a debate preview post called “Thoughts on Playing to Win Tonight’s Foreign Policy Debate.” I was tempted to call my debate recap post “Thoughts on Playing to Draw Tonight’s Foreign Policy Debate.” For Romney did not attempt to outdebate Obama point by point on foreign policy. And in most instances, he was content to agree with what Obama currently is doing on this or that foreign policy matter.

Yet, it would be unfair to Romney to say he was playing for a draw. His object was to win by showing himself in a good light, rather than by showing Obama in a bad one. His target audience was, above all, nonpartisan voters and females.

Specifically, Romney wanted to demonstrate (1) that he is a man of peace, (2) that he understands the world and the foreign policy issues it presents, and (3) that he has a foreign policy vision plus specific ideas on how to deal with the big issues.

That this was Romney’s overriding agenda became apparent with the very first question, which pertained to Libya. Instead of attacking Obama’s handling of the Benghazi fiasco – low-hanging fruit, in my opinion – Romney launched into a mushy oration about the need to ally with forces for good in the Middle East so as to help realize the initial promise of the Arab Spring.

Frankly, I wanted to vomit. But Romney wasn’t playing to win on a debate on Libya, he was playing to establish that he has a vision for a peaceful Middle East. It was a hopey-changey answer, the kind Obama would have offered in 2008, and might have offered tonight if he were trying to run out the clock, rather than trying to right a troubled ship.

And so it continued for the better part of an hour. Obama landed some pretty good shots, mostly having to do with Romney’s past positions. But Romney, largely unruffled, went about the business of offering reassuring platitudes supplemented by the occasional 3 to 5 point plan. And, with Obama’s cooperation, he was able to turn the debate to domestic issues, an area where, as he showed again tonight, he’s quite comfortable attacking the president.

Eventually, once he felt he had accomplished his primary mission, Romney did what I have been advocating – tying the current ills in the Middle East to that fact that Obama presented an appearance of weakness early in his administration. He cited Obama’s pre-election promises to negotiate with the world’s leading bad guys, his apology tour, and his stated desire to put daylight between the U.S. and Israel.

When Obama tried to laugh of the notion that he had undertaken an apology tour, Romney quoted the president’s criticism of the U.S. in Cairo and other stops in the Middle East, and added that Obama had declined to make Israel one of his stops. And Romney mixed in the fact that a majority of Democratic Senators had written to Obama complaining about his treatment of Israel. Devastating across the board. Let’s hope that people were still watching.

In my opinion, Romney should have mixed his reassuring talk with some attacks on Obama’s foreign policy, instead of waiting for nearly an hour to go on the foreign policy offensive. By not doing so, he made Obama look like the stronger of the two candidates in the early going.

But I assume that Romney’s approach was based on his reading of polls and focus group results. He and his team must believe (1) that Romney is ahead and (2) that what undecided and independent voters most want to hear from him when it comes to foreign policy is that he is knowledgeable, peaceful, and presidential sounding.

Is this belief correct or was Romney being too cautious? I don’t know. But Obama sounded like a candidate who fears he is losing, so perhaps his team is reading things the same way Team Romney is.

Moreover, as the debate went on, Obama seemed to betray some frustration. Maybe it was the frustration of a man who was winning the debate contest he thought he had entered only to realize that he might be competing in a somewhat different contest that wasn’t going quite so well.

Who won? It would be reasonable to score the debate a draw. But the kind of draw that, if anything, may well have helped Romney move another small step toward the presidency, assuming his reading of the current status of the race is correct.

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