Republican Mitt Romney is acting like a challenger who feels he has enough momentum and time to overtake the president by Election Day, two weeks from now.
Judging from Monday’s final debate, President Barack Obama almost seems to agree.
Obama was clearly the more aggressive combatant in the 90-minute forum, whacking Romney’s personal investment record, truthfulness and overseas fundraising. Romney, meantime, went out of his way to blunt his differences with the president on several key foreign policy matters — supposedly the debate’s focus — and to appear calm, moderate and non-threatening.
Romney’s approach was one typically taken by front-runners: First, do no harm. Don’t stir the pot. Keep the clock running.
Obama’s forcefulness appeared chiefly aimed at discouraged Democrats who might not bother voting, rather than at the sliver of undecided voters in the handful of states still in play. Romney is not the benign, acceptable alternative he claims to be, Obama seemed to be saying, and I, your president, am finally willing to fight tooth and nail for a second term after sleepwalking through the first debate, which triggered Romney’s rise in the polls.
“It’s all get-out-the-vote now,” said Matt Bennett, a veteran of Democratic campaigns. “If you’re undecided now, you ain’t voting.”
“Obama will win the debate on points,” Bennett said, “but it won’t matter much.”
A number of other Democrats shared that view. Interest in the third and final debate probably suffered, they said, from voter fatigue, competition from televised football and baseball games, and the official topic — foreign policy — in a campaign dominated by jobs and the economy.
These Democrats, however, don’t necessarily think Obama will lose. Some feel Romney took a big gamble by being so tame in the final face-to-face encounter.
Obama still holds a slight edge in Ohio in most independent polls. It’s the state that can almost seal the president’s re-election if he holds it, because it would force Romney to sweep virtually every other contested state, including tough Wisconsin.
Romney’s stay-the-course demeanor Monday points to confidence that his slight rise in the polls will continue, even if only a smidgen of voters are truly undecided. Democrats note that many thousands of people are already voting through early balloting programs in key states.
The election’s outcome may turn on whether Obama’s get-out-the-vote ground troops can outrun Romney’s momentum. Polls show Romney doing considerably better among likely voters, as opposed to registered voters. That gives Obama’s volunteers a chance to hunt down thousands of “soft supporters,” and persuade them to get to a polling place.
From the debate’s opening minutes, Romney showed no appetite for verbal fisticuffs. Moderator Bob Schieffer invited the former Massachusetts governor to critique Obama’s handling of the fatal attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya, a topic Romney had fumbled in the second debate, six days ago.
Romney showed no interest. Instead, he congratulated the president on the killing of Osama bin Laden, hoping to negate an Obama strong point as quickly as possible.
Throughout the evening, Romney continued a recent trend of moderating his foreign policy positions. He seemed bent on presenting himself as a sound commander in chief, even if it required him to narrow his differences with the president.
Romney offered unusual praise for Obama’s war efforts in Afghanistan, declaring the 2010 surge of 33,000 U.S. troops a success and asserting that efforts to train Afghan security forces are on track to enable the U.S. and its allies to put the Afghans fully in charge of security by the end of 2014.
Romney said U.S. forces should complete their withdrawal on that schedule. Previously he has criticized the setting of a specific withdrawal date.
And on Iran, Romney mollified his previous criticism of Obama’s sanctions policy. He stressed that resorting to war to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon would be a last option, softening the hawkish tone that had been a hallmark of his campaign.
Longtime GOP strategist Terry Holt defended Romney’s soft touch.
“His first goal is to appear presidential,” Holt said. “This is not a grand jury where all he has to do is indict. People are looking to him for presidential qualities. Cool, calm and clear.”
Obama, by contrast, looked for every chance to criticize Romney on as many topics as possible.
“Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s,” Obama said.
He chided Romney for having said Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical foe. “The Cold War‘s been over for 20 years,” Obama said.
“Presidents always have an advantage when debating foreign policy,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Romney did well enough tonight to maintain his momentum and win this race.”
Obama has 14 days to stop that momentum. He plunges in immediately Tuesday with events in Delray Beach, Fla., and Dayton, Ohio. On Wednesday and Thursday the president plans to campaign in Iowa, Colorado, California, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, on Tuesday were headed to Nevada and Colorado. Romney planned to campaign Wednesday in Nevada and Iowa, and Thursday and Friday in Ohio.
Neither ticket can afford to write off the other competitive states. But Ohio seems destined to be the testing ground of whether Obama’s tiny lead and big ground operation can hold off Romney’s October momentum.
Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press. AP writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press