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Monday, October 22, 2012

Foreign Policy Debate Puts Focus on Leadership

President Obama arrived in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday before the third presidential debate.Damon Winter/The New York Times President Obama arrived in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday before the third presidential debate.

For 90 minutes tonight, President Obama and Mitt Romney will clash over specific foreign policy issues, their differences heightened by a debate intended to draw out sharp contrasts ahead of Election Day in two weeks.

But for viewers, the specifics may be mostly background noise as they search for the answer to a gauzy question: Who would be the best leader?

In polls this year, voters have practically screamed at the top of their lungs how little they care about foreign policy. In recent polls of three battleground states, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of voters in each state said national security was the most important issue to them, ranking below the economy, deficit and health care.

And yet, both campaigns have spent plenty of time and money in an effort to claim the mantle of who is best able to lead. Top strategists for both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama seem to believe that foreign policy will help shape those perceptions.

In a strategy memorandum released by the Democratic campaign on Monday, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, argues that Mr. Obama has proved to be a “steady and strong leader” around the world. He accuses Mr. Romney of “endless bluster and a record of dangerous blunders” in foreign affairs.

“He is an extreme and expedient candidate who lacks the judgment and vision so vital for the Oval Office,” Mr. Kerry wrote of Mr. Romney. “And he's at the top of the most inexperienced fo reign policy ticket to run for president and vice president in decades.”

Mr. Romney's campaign countered with a memo of its own, arguing that at the end of Mr. Obama's four years in office, “America stands weakened around the world, with our safety threatened, our allies increasingly isolated, and hostile nations emboldened.” The campaign added, “As president, Mitt Romney will deliver where President Obama has failed.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Romney and his top surrogates have seized on the killing of the American ambassador in Libya and other developments in the Middle East as evidence of a broader leadership failure on the president's part. Mr. Romney fumbled his efforts to make that broader case in his second debate with Mr. Obama last week.

In that exchange, Mr. Romney's argument about leadership became caught up in his specific assertion about whether the president had called the attacks “terrorism.” Now, the Republican candidate will get a nother chance to make the larger case.

Mr. Obama's advisers have long believed that the president's success in making good on some crucial promises - leaving Iraq, winding down in Afghanistan and killing Osama bin Laden - has earned him broad support when it comes to foreign policy leadership.

“Presidential elections are about character and the character of your convictions, and my guy, he never tells you anything he doesn't mean and he doesn't do,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said at a rally over the weekend in Florida.

Surveys suggest that Mr. Obama remains strong on foreign policy - to a point. Even as Mr. Romney has been hammering the president on Libya policy, for example, voters in many polls still give Mr. Obama the edge on handling foreign policy matters.

A Quinnipiac University / CBS News poll of voters in Ohio released Monday gives Mr. Obama a seven-point edge over Mr. Romney on that question.

But Mr. Romney does better on t he broader question of leadership. In the same survey, Ohio voters gave Mr. Romney the edge when asked whether they view the candidates as strong leaders. Tonight's debate could be an opportunity for Mr. Romney to further widen that gap.

To do that, Mr. Romney will have to find a way to connect his specific criticism of what he calls Mr. Obama's “feckless” foreign policy to a bigger critique of the president's ability to lead on the world stage.

On some crucial foreign policy issues, Mr. Romney's own positions are different more in tone than substance from Mr. Obama's. But Mr. Romney is likely to focus on the continuing standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, the continuing stalemate over peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and the growing security and economic tensions with Russia and China.

The president's challenge is to defend his own record while broadly questioning Mr. Romney's capacity to lead in a complex world. In his Monday memo, M r. Kerry wrote that a failure by Mr. Romney to answer those concerns would convince people that he has “fallen short of the Commander-in-Chief threshold.”

In the past, Mr. Obama has sought to undercut perceptions of his rival's leadership qualities by tying him to the policies of President George W. Bush, and by suggesting that Mr. Romney will undo any progress made during the last four years.

The president's campaign previewed that theme in a new television commercial it released Monday. The commercial claims that Mr. Romney would have left American troops in Iraq and opposes a responsible drawdown of the conflict in Afghanistan.

“President Obama ended the Iraq war. Mitt Romney would have left 30,000 troops there and called bringing them home ‘tragic,'” the ad says. “It's time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here.”