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Round three

Oct 24, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

The final presidential debate competed for attention with Monday Night Football

The third of three presidential debates has come and gone, leaving two weeks before the election. Predictably, Monday's event in Florida clearly was President Obama's strongest of the three (there's nothing like being president for four years to make you an authority on foreign policy), while challenger Mitt Romney was less confident on the designated foreign policy topic than he had been in the earlier debates on other subjects.

Voter polls give Obama victories in two of the three forums, although it's Romney's good performance against a detached Obama in the first debate that probably will stand out over time.

In the sound-bite environment that emerges even from a detailed 90-minute debate, the president probably got in the best zinger Monday night after Romney complained that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it did in 1917.

"Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets," countered Obama in what is bound to be the catchy one-liner to emerge from the debate.

Oddly, Romney also claimed again that Syria, a key ally of Iran in the Middle East, is "Iran's route to the sea." Check the map. Iran, famously, is on the Persian Gulf and has one of the nation's most strategically important warm-water ports on the Straits of Hormuz. It needs no "route to the sea" from any other country. Syria, which is separated from Iran by Iraq, is on the Mediterranean "Sea," which might be what Romney meant.

Wyoming long since has stopped being relevant in the presidential election, at least in terms of the horserace. Our state will give its huge majority to Romney on Nov. 6. But Wyoming residents will be affected by many things the president does, and Monday's debate was another reminder that when presidents send young Americans into military action overseas, some of those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen will be from our state. Riverton has had a combat death this year, in fact.

Few presidential candidates were less informed on foreign policy than George W. Bush, whose 2000 presidential campaign demonstrated clearly -- often humorously -- that he had barely considered the topic. Yet foreign policy issues came to dominate his presidency, for better or worse.

The point is that even with all their power, presidents can't always choose what their presidencies will be about, and the unexpected nature of a presidency very often comes about through developments abroad to which the U.S. president must respond.

The third Obama-Romney debate was focused on foreign policy. Ahead of time it was acknowledged that this was the debate that figured to draw the least interest among voters. They had seen two debates already, the event was scheduled on television opposite Monday Night Football and the seventh baseball game of the National League championship series, and, importantly, there is a feeling that the average voter cares less about foreign policy than domestic issues.

People care about what they care about, and no voter could be blamed for being concerned primarily about the economy this year. But foreign policy and the domestic economy are connected closely. Resources deployed overseas cannot be used at home. Military action overseas affects family incomes at home when a family member is in service. Budgetary questions that could affect the federal deficit are complicated by foreign obligations.

When an incumbent president who necessarily has been immersed a good deal of the time in foreign policy is challenged by a newcomer not well-versed in foreign affairs, the difference on the debate stage can be stark. One candidate talks in the abstract, while the other speaks on the basis of experience. It is inevitable.

No one knows what unexpected happenings away from our shores will come up in the next four years, only that they will come and that they will be significant. For that reason alone, a presidential debate on foreign policy probably is at least as important as a football game.

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