During the first months of the general election campaign, the Obama campaign was able to use its financial advantage over Romney to saturate the airwaves, particularly in the battleground states, with negative attack ads demonizing the Republican candidate successfully creating a false image of who he is and what he believes. By remaining constantly on the attack on issues large and small, real or imagined, the Obama campaign managed to divert voter attention away from the presidentâ€™s failures while driving up Romneyâ€™s â€œnegatives.â€
Obamaâ€™s strategy put Romney on the defensive. It drove him to use the Republican convention to reintroduce himself to the voters to combat the false negative impressions of him that the Obama campaign had created, instead of concentrating on Obamaâ€™s first term failures and presenting his agenda.
At the Democrat convention, and into the month of September, Obama remained on the attack. This enabled him to extend his small lead in the national opinion polls and gave him a nearly decisive advantage in the all-important Electoral College vote count. Romney had one last opportunity to counter Obamaâ€™s strategy, the live, one-on-one debates. He used the first debate with stunning effectiveness to present himself to voters as a credible presidential alternative to Obama, and, while less effective, Romney managed to preserve that gain in his second and third meeting with the president.
ROMNEY GOES ON THE ATTACK
In the first debate, Romney turned the tables on a complacent and poorly prepared Obama by going over to the attack. During that debate, Romney was able to present himself directly to American voters as a candidate with a credible plan to restore Americaâ€™s prosperity and create millions of new jobs for unemployed and underemployed workers. For the first time, voters were able to see and directly compare the real Romney to Obama, and judge for themselves whether he is qualified. Many independent and undecided voters apparently liked what they saw.
That is why the first debate had such a dramatic impact on the momentum of the campaign, transforming Romney overnight from a faltering challenger into a confident frontrunner. In all three subsequent debates, Romney and Paul Ryan managed to avoid the distractions of Obamaâ€™s constant attacks and continued to focus voter attention on their plans for economic recovery, the winning issue in the campaign.
Even in the third and final presidential debate, whose subject was foreign policy, Romneyâ€™s top priority was to deny Obama the opportunity to divert voter attention from the presidentâ€™s first term economic failures. Romney again surprised Obama by avoiding the more contentious issues, such as the administrationâ€™s coverup of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and said he agreed with the substance of many of Obamaâ€™s foreign policies, while criticizing their tone and execution. Romneyâ€™s timidness in the debate did alarm some conservatives, who were always afraid that he is a moderate at heart. But other Republicans understood what his timidity was trying to accomplish. By denying Obama any foreign policy positions which he could attack, Romney was forcing the subject of the third debate back to economic policy, his winning issue.
Romneyâ€™s calm and well-informed presentations on a broad range of foreign policy issues in the debate allowed him to demonstrate his own competence in that area, a key qualification for the job of commander-in chief. Though Romneyâ€™s debate approach did allow Obama to present himself as authoritative and effective on foreign affairs, his campaign does not believe that this election will be won or lost on those issues.
His low key approach also implicitly refuted Democrat charges that as president, Romney would be too aggressive and too likely to involve the US in another foreign war.
The day after the debate, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh cited evidence from a variety of liberal sources confirming that Romneyâ€™s strategy had succeeded in foiling Obamaâ€™s intention to try to disqualify his opponent during the last debate.
STILL TOO CLOSE TOO CALL
Romneyâ€™s debate strategy has transformed the election, perhaps the most important one of our generation, into one of the closest in American history. In the three weeks since the first debate, Romney has erased Obamaâ€™s lead in the polls and has captured the momentum in the race. It is now so close that, as in the 2000 election, the winner in the Electoral College may not be the same as the winner of the popular vote.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election, the bitter dispute over the Florida vote recount and the controversial Supreme Court decision which resulted in George W. Bush winning the presidency divided the nation, and damaged the faith of the electorate in their government.
The scars from that episode never healed, and have contributed to the rancor of the current election. The divisions within the national political system are deeper today than they were 12 years ago.
FOREIGN POLICY FEARS FOR AN OBAMA SECOND TERM
The issues go far beyond mere politics. Many fear that if Obama were to win a second term, he will quietly renege on his repeated promised to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. They also expect Obama to put intense pressure on Israel to make dangerous territorial concessions on the West Bank and Yerushalayim to the Palestinians. These concerns forced Obama to defend his record in the third debate, and he did so very effectively. Romney failed to follow up effectively on either topic, which he obviously sacrificed for the sake of his larger strategy in this debate.
Foreign policy experts expect a second Obama term to lead to a further deterioration of the stature of the US as a leader of the free world. Other traditional US allies around the world are as nervous as Israelâ€™s leaders about Obamaâ€™s intentions, and his lack of commitment to their survival, as demonstrated by the fate of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Obamaâ€™s failed Middle East policies, not only with regard to Israel, but also in Iran, Egypt and Syria have laid the foundation for another war which could engulf the entire region.
The tragedy which befell Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the US consulate at Benghazi destroyed Obamaâ€™s campaign claim that he has al Qaeda â€œon the run.â€ It also illuminates the disaster of Obamaâ€™s support for the Arab Spring uprisings, which has enabled the Islamic extremists of the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt and threaten vital US strategic interests throughout the region.
PIVOTING BACK TO THE ECONOMY
Romney pointed out that the consequences of an Obama second term are equally dire on the domestic level. The full implementation of Obamacare will lead to higher taxes and an effective federal takeover of the worldâ€™ finest health care system. The $716 billion Obamacare takes out of the Medicare budget over the next decade will also decimate the quality of health care provided to our seniors.
A continuation of Obamaâ€™s liberal tax and spend policies will drive the federal deficit to dangerously high levels. His anti-business regulatory policies will undermine the strength of the private sector of the US economy. They will stifle job creation and make more Americans dependent upon government welfare payments. For those reasons, many fear that a second Obama term would seriously jeopardize the future success of the country.
In past presidential elections, there have often been significant differences in policy and approach between the presidential candidates of the two leading parties, but never in the post-World War II era have they been so fundamentally at odds as they are today.
RECALLING REAGAN VS. CARTER
The closest analogy to todayâ€™s presidential race is the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan presented American voters with a stark choice and difference in outlook. Today, as then, an incumbent Democrat president was content to oversee declining American influence in the world, shrinking from confrontation with our enemies, while the US economy stagnated. By contrast, his Republican opponent sought to reassert American leadership, rebuild this countryâ€™s military strength, and revive economic growth by cutting taxes and excess regulation, unleashing the potential of the free enterprise system to provide prosperity for all.
Then as now, the race was close for most of the campaign, with Reagan taking a decisive lead only in the final week, after winning the one and only presidential debate with Carter. Reagan won by showing the American people that he was a sincere, experienced and capable leader, and not the incompetent, mean-spirited arch-conservative that Democrats and some in the media had claimed he was.
In very much the same way, the first presidential debate in this campaign, on October 3, revealed Romneyâ€™s strengths to the voters for the first time. It transformed the campaign, undermining the confidence of the Democrats. Within a week, it brought Romney even with Obama in the national polls, and enabled him to move into the lead in several key battleground states, where Obama had been ahead, such as Florida, New Hampshire and Colorado, and pull within striking distance of Obama in Ohio and even Pennsylvania.
Romneyâ€™s steady performance and credible presentations in the next two presidential debates have confirmed the positive impression he made on voters in the first one. More important, they have undermined Obamaâ€™s campaign strategy of trying to convince voters that Romney is not suitable to be president. In the debates, Romney has effectively refuted Obamaâ€™s accusations that he is uncaring, untruthful and untrustworthy. Romney has also presented a credible plan for his presidency which gives voters hope for their economic future, while promising to restore Americaâ€™s active role as the leader of the free world.
OBAMA WON ON POINTS BUT FAILED TO ACHIEVE HIS GOAL
Most of the polls and pundits awarded Obama the victory, on points, in both the second and third debates, but neither one proved to be decisive. While Obama may have won them, he failed to achieve his strategic goal of disqualifying Romney as a credible presidential alternative.
Joe Biden was considered the victor over Ryan in the vice presidential debate. But he, too, failed to reverse the campaign momentum which Romney created with his decisive victory over Obama in their first debate. His overly aggressive and clownish demeanor further detracted from the stature of the incumbents in the eyes of many independent or undecided voters..
While Obamaâ€™s aggressive demeanor in the second and third debates pleased his liberal supporters, who were shocked and dismayed by his passivity in the first encounter, he failed to make any decisive new arguments that would disqualify Romney. At the same time, Obama was unable to soften the impact of Romneyâ€™s calm recitation of the long list Obamaâ€™s first term failures and broken promises.
BENGHAZI QUESTIONS REMAIN UNANSWERED
Obama failed to answer key questions posed to him by the town hall audience in the second debate. He had no cogent response for the man who asked him why he should vote for his reelection after four years of failed economic policies. Obama also was unable to explain his administrationâ€™s constantly changing account of the nature of the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which resulted in the death of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Obama also failed to answer the original question posed to him, namely, who in his administration was responsible for denying the repeated requests by Ambassador Stevens to Washington for more security and protection.
In that debate, Obama was indignant in response to the accusation that his administration deliberately withheld US intelligence reports about the terrorist nature of the Benghazi attack from the American people in order to bolster Obamaâ€™s claim that he has al Qaeda â€œon the run.â€ The more information that has comes out about the attack itself, the more the Obama administration has become entangled in its own lies.
For example, the Associated Press confirmed last week that the CIA station chief in Libya reported within 24 hours of the attack that it was a carefully preplanned terrorist operation. Furthermore, after the first day. there were never any reports to support the White House claim, which it maintained for two weeks, that the attack was a spontaneous outgrowth of a civilian demonstration against an anti-Muslim video which got out of hand. In fact, American survivors of the attack reported immediately that no such demonstration ever took place, while Libyan government officials and those Libyan consulate guards who did not abandon their posts when the attack began always claimed that it was a well-planned terrorist assault, employing many fighters armed with heavy weapons, including RPGâ€™s and mortars. The terrorists had also prepared a deadly ambush for the security force which arrived from the US embassy in Tripoli hours after the attack began.
Yet, for more than a week after that CIA station chief submitted his initial report, CIA intelligence briefings to members of Congress continued to follow the administration line blaming the attack on the wholly fictitious anti-video demonstration.
SUSPICIOUS, SHIFTING EXPLANATIONS
Even more suspicious, White House comments on the consulate attack during the first 48 hours after it happened were very cautious about its nature. The administration did not start really pushing the story about the fictitious anti-video demonstration until the third day, by which time media reports from numerous sources had already made it clear that it was a premeditated terrorist attack. Despite this, five days after the attack, on Sunday, September 16, the White House sent US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice to appear on five different broadcast news programs to tell the American public that the Benghazi incident was just a spontaneous demonstration that was â€œhijackedâ€™ by terrorists.
When the credibility of that story collapsed, the administration attempted to shift the blame to the intelligence community. Rice said that she merely repeated what the CIA had told her to say. Vice President Joe Biden, in his debate with Paul Ryan, said that he and President Obama had been given false information on the nature of the attack, and that they had never been told that Ambassador Stevens had asked for more security, and been turned down.
The night before the second presidential debate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came forward to accept â€œresponsibilityâ€ for what happened in Benghazi. In the debate itself, Obama reacted to the accusations that his White House had been caught running a politically inspired coverup with an embarrassing mixture self-righteousness, feigned outrage and denial. He made a big point in the debate of the fact that he ambiguously mentioned the word â€œterrorâ€ in his address to the nation the day after the Benghazi attack, but then failed to explain why his administration then spent the next two weeks publicly denying it.
WHITE HOUSE CAUGHT IN ITS OWN LIES
The White House explanation about what it knew about the Benghazi attack and when it knew has become so convoluted that it is difficult to escape the impression that the administration has become trapped in its own web of lies and deliberately misleading statements.
The only reason why his false answers to the Libya question in the second debate did not destroy Obamaâ€™s credibility on the spot was the intervention of the debate moderator, CNN reporter Candy Crowley. She came to his rescue when Romney challenged the false White House account by confirming Obamaâ€™s claim that he had mentioned the word â€œterrorâ€ the day after the attack. Crowley later admitted that Romneyâ€™s accusation on Libya was â€œright in the main,â€ but that he had â€œpicked the wrong wordâ€ in the debate. But by then the damage had been done, allowing Obama in the debate to wriggle out of the coverup charge.
Crowleyâ€™s transparent effort to help Obama get away with the Libya coverup in the debate backfired, because it became a focus of the post-debate media coverage. As a result, the Libya issue has remained in the headlines, reinforcing the narrative that obama is lying to the country.
On this issue, the Obama White House has now painted itself into a corner, as those upon whom it has sought to shift the blame for the Benghazi tragedy tell their side of the story. It is now well established that al Qaeda was very much involved in the consulate attack, proving that it is still a viable and growing threat in the region, despite the failed White House efforts to hide that fact from the American people.
The administration is still tangled in its contradictory explanations of what took place before, during and after the attack. The State Department now says that it knew from the beginning that there never was an anti-video demonstration in Benghazi before the attack, and that it was carried out by a branch of al Qaeda. This makes it even more difficult for the White House to explain its two-week effort to cover up the terrorist nature of the attack.
A POLITICALLY MOTIVATED DECEPTION
Clearly, the White House was trying to deceive the American people. The political reason for that deception is obvious. The administration has been trying to protect Obamaâ€™s campaign claim that he had beaten al Qaeda by killing bin Laden and that it is now â€œon the run.â€ The Benghazi raid proves that al Qaeda is still a very real threat, undermining one of the few claims of accomplishment by Obamaâ€™s administration.
The Libya coverup is a problem which will not go away before the election, and for which Obama has no answer. The more he tries to wriggle out of it, the more obvious the deception becomes. Some analysts are already calling it this electionâ€™s â€œOctober surpriseâ€ even though it actually happened in September.
In another surprise, Romney deliberately avoided raising the Benghazi issue in the third debate on foreign policy. Obama was clearly prepared for it, and was expected to counterattack by accusing Romney of exploiting a national tragedy for partisan advantage. Romney might have been able to score some points, but by avoiding the Benghazi issue completely, he was able to achieve his larger objective, shifting the focus of the third debate back to economic policy issues, where the Republicans have always held a major advantage.
Obamaâ€™s goal Monday night was to neutralize Romneyâ€™s gains in the first debate by finding an avenue of attack that would disqualify his opponent in the eyes of voters. By staying constantly on the attack, Obama looked mean and petulant, but Romney did not allow himself to be baited into responding in kind. Instead, he kept his focus in the debate on his winning issue in this campaign, the failure of Obamaâ€™s economic policies, while refusing to give Obama an opportunity to use his best pre-planned attack lines.
The result was that while Obama was judged to have won the third debate on points, he was unable to halt Romneyâ€™s momentum heading into the final two weeks of the campaign.
OBAMA FAILED TO ACHIEVE HIS DEBATE GOAL
The Obama campaign and its liberal supporters immediately realized that he failed to accomplish his prime goal in the final debate. His attacks on Romney fell flat.
His best attack line of the night was a sarcastic comment in reply to Romneyâ€™s criticism of Obamaâ€™s deep cuts to the defense budget, which will reduce the US Navy to its size before World War I. Obama suggested that the Romney was unaware that the US military no longer relies on bayonets and horses.
In the aftermath of the debate, media fact checkers quickly exposed many of Obamaâ€™s attacks on Romneyâ€™s previous positions to be false, or grossly misleading, while most of Romneyâ€™s claims in response checked out. For example, as Romney said during the debate, Obama did go an apology tour soon after he took office. He toured Europe and Arab countries delivering speeches in in which he repeatedly bashed US actions, while conspicuously failing to make a stop in Israel.
In a desperate effort to regain its lost momentum, the morning after the debate, Obama campaign published a glossy booklet with what it called Obamaâ€™s agenda for his second term, but upon reading it reporters quickly realized that it contained no new proposals, and concluded with an appeal to for voters to support him based solely upon trust.
During the second debate, Libya was not the only example of moderator Crowley favoring Obama She was the one who chose the questions, which were submitted in writing by members of the town hall audience. Many of the topics she chose, such as immigration and womenâ€™s issues, seemed designed to play into the Obama campaignâ€™s main talking points.
Crowley often gave Obama the last word when he and Romney clashed on specific points. At several points, she refused to allow Romney to respond to Obamaâ€™s accusations, repeatedly cutting him off in mid-sentence. Crowley also gave Obama about 10% more speaking time over the course of the entire debate.
Nevertheless, Romney still turned in another impressive debate performance. As he did in the first debate, Romney showed a good command of all the issues in the campaign, and made a special effort to appeal to the disappointed 2008 Obama supporters who will be the swing vote in this election.
He was particularly effective in highlighting the failures of Obamaâ€™s economic policies. Romney pounded away with specifics. He cited the 23 million Americans looking for better jobs and the sharp rise in the number of Americans on food stamps since Obama took office. Romney held the president responsible for the sharp rise in the cost of family essentials, such as gasoline, his broken promise to bring down the cost of health insurance, and the fact that average family incomes have fallen since he took office. Looking forward, Romney was much more upbeat than Obama, promising the American people that the economy would do much better under his leadership over the next four years, giving them reason for hope.
ROMNEY FILLS IN THE DETAILS
Romney also provided more details of his own plan to revive the US economy. He explained one way in which he would lower tax rates across the board without increasing the deficit or increasing the tax burden on the middle class. Instead of eliminating any of the more popular middle class tax deductions, such as those for charitable deductions and home mortgage interest, Romney proposed setting a total cap for all of them, preserving their value for middle class taxpayers, while limiting the ability of the wealthy to use them to reduce their taxes.
Romney also gave reasonable conservative responses to audience questions on immigration issues and the rights of women to fair treatment in the job market. Democrats have tried to ridicule Romneyâ€™s response to the latter issue, because they have become frightened that he has made great strides in recent weeks among suburban women voters, all but closing the 8-point â€œgender gapâ€ that Obama had enjoyed with women voters earlier in the campaign.
Democrats have launched an all out attack on Romneyâ€™s positions on so-called â€œwomenâ€™s issues,â€ such as the right to life, equal pay for equal work, and specific health insurance coverage mandates under Obamacare even when they clash with the providerâ€™s religious views. Surprisingly, this effort has been ineffective in winning back Obamaâ€™s lost former women supporters. In interviews, these women say that they do not see Romneyâ€™s relatively moderate views on these â€œwomenâ€™s issuesâ€ to be much of a threat. Many say that they support Romneyâ€™s economic policies and see them as more important in light of Obamaâ€™s failures in these areas.
ROMNEYâ€™S STRATEGY IS WORKING
Romneyâ€™s steady performance and credible presentations in the debates have undercut the basic Obama campaign strategy of trying to convince voters that Romney is mean, uncaring and untruthful. He has effectively refuted those characterizations and finally presented a plan for his presidency which voters can understand and support, even if all the details are not clear.
But as Election Day approaches, the focus of both campaigns turns to the Electoral College map, in which Obamaâ€™s once commanding lead has been transformed into a virtual tie. As recently as the beginning of October, Obama held a clear lead in enough states to put him very close to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory, and Romney was trailing in most of the remaining battleground states that still seemed to be in play. But since the first debate, that picture has shifted radically. Now Romney and Obama are roughly even in the electoral votes they seem to control with several of the states in which Obama had been leading now up for grabs. These include Wisconsin, Michigan, and most surprising of all, Pennsylvania. In addition, Romney is now leading in some of the traditional â€œredâ€ states which Obama carried in 2008, including North Carolina, Virginia, and most important, Florida.
If the election were held at the time of this writing, the polls still indicate that Obama would win the Electoral College, but by a razor thin margin. If Romney were to win in all of the states in which he now holds a lead, and comes from behind in any one of large industrial states where Obama is still slightly ahead, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan he would carry the Electoral College by a narrow margin. Romney could also win if he carries a combination of the smaller battleground states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Nevada.
A PHOTO FINISH EXPECTED
In a campaign this close, both sides rely on their â€œground game,â€ organized efforts to bring their voter base to the polls on Election Day or in early voting to put them over the top.
According to Karl Rove, the mobilization of George W. Bushâ€™s base of religious right voters in Florida provided the margin of victory for him in the close election of 2004.
On November 6, Obamaâ€™s campaign will be looking to union volunteers as well as black and Hispanic voter groups to overcome Romneyâ€™s lead with white voters. On the other hand, the Republicans are counting on the enthusiasm of grass roots Tea Party activists and organized religious right voter groups to galvanize their voter turnout.
That is why, during the last week of this campaign, we will see both candidates make one last advertising and personal appearance push in each of the four tossup industrial states which could make the difference, and a maximum get out the vote effort among their political allies from coast-to-coast.
The Obama campaign claims the presidentâ€™s victories in the last two debates will stop the swing in the momentum of the race toward Romney, but Republicans are still cautiously optimistic. Right now the poll numbers nationally and in many battleground states are still fluid around the equilibrium point. A strong voter reaction to the third and final debate could tip the balance, but the initial post-debate polling indicates that it changed very few minds either way.
That would indicate that the steady pro-Romney momentum in the poll numbers since the first debate is likely to continue, barring any further surprises. Still, the race remains too close to call, with the leads in most of the battleground states still within the polling margins of error. The uncertainty about the outcome is therefore likely to continue right up to Election Day, and possibly into early the next morning.