Four dead and Ohio

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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With just a little over two weeks to go before Election Day, a foreign policy debate scheduled for tonight, and national polls that are essentially tied, things are getting exciting.

It’s not just the national numbers that are tight. Mitt Romney is also gaining ground in the crucial swing state of Ohio.

So what should we expect to see tonight — and in the days going forward?

Obama still has the trump card of bin Laden. His theme, “bin Laden’s dead and General Motors is alive,” is a compelling message that fits tonight’s foreign policy debate format  — and also resonates with Americans in states like Ohio who are worried about jobs.

Don’t just count on Obama to say it — if you do a shot every time he mentions bin Laden’s name, you’ll likely be soused by the end of the night.

Since the first debate, Romney has had the wind at his back. He still does, but his game plan is decidedly more complex. To win the debate, Romney will have to pull off several tricky maneuvers on Monday night.

First, the death of four Americans in Benghazi has muddied the waters on Obama’s handling of foreign affairs. Yes, “bin Laden is dead” is still a strong card to play, but the tragic deaths of four Americans — including an Ambassador — isn’t merely “not optimal” or a “bump in the road.”

For a generation, Democrats were perceived as being weak on foreign policy. We’re not back to that yet, but Obama’s image as a trusted Commander in Chief has a few cracks in it.

For Romney to win on foreign policy, he must delicately (not overtly) stress that our international challenges transcend the killing of one evil man hiding out in Abbottabad. There are a myriad of issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Syria, China, and Afghanistan, etc., that will likely be discussed tonight. Both candidates will have to speak intelligently about a wide variety of international concerns.

Of course, Benghazi will be an issue. Ironically, this is the most dangerous topic for Romney.

The conservative base sees a “slam dunk” here, but Romney must tread carefully. As Dan Balz notes, “Romney has twice blown opportunities to keep the president on the defensive over what happened in Benghazi. At the time, he injected himself into the middle of the fast-moving events and made himself the story. At Hofstra, he got into a semantic argument over exactly what the president said about the killings the morning after they happened.”

This is not to say that Romney can’t — or shouldn’t — call out Obama on his failures in the region. But during the debate, Romney should err toward moderation and seriousness — and let others take care of the messy work of casting too much blame. After all, a foreign policy debate is as much about demonstrating the right temperament needed to answer a 3 am call as it is proving that your opponent is weak.

There is an additional thing Romney must do, and that is to find a way to tie in the economy to foreign policy.

It stands to reason that when America is strong at home, she can project more influence internationally. These issues are all interrelated, and Romney shouldn’t let the opportunity to pass without making the case that Obama’s economy has contributed to making America weaker abroad.

If National Review is right, we should also expect some sparring over China.

Obama has been ahead all year, but with just over two weeks left, he appears to be closing weak, while Romney is closing very strong. Will tonight continue, or reverse, the trend?

Matt K. Lewis