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Final showdown comes at heated political moment

This post originally appeared on Slate.

The third presidential debate is the final big national event before the race to the finish. Tonight's debate--which will focus on foreign policy--is a double superlative: it involves the most important issues which a president has more control over than any other and the political stakes are the highest. Serious political consequences have a tendency to consume intelligent argument, which means the debate could end up feeling like the larger campaign where the fracas has little to do with the actual issues. Think back to the last presidential debate's confusing exchange of blows over Libya. Now imagine 90 minutes of that.

The foreign policy debate welcomes platitudes. The president wraps himself in the office and the challenger can paint a fantastical vision of the world without fear of being called out. Romney advisers say that in the first few debates voters warmed to him because it sounded like he had a plan. They didn't know exactly what that plan was, but he sounded confident and that was enough. That voter reaction is especially likely in the foreign policy debate, where the listening audience is going to be making their opinions based on which man sounds like he shares their values, looks comfortable in the commander in chief role, and seems to be telling the truth. Those qualities may or may not have anything to do with the specific questions asked of the candidates.

The debate takes place at a dead even political moment. According to the Real Clear Politics' average of the polls, it's tied. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has it knotted at 47. If this is the case, both men have something to lose and something to gain--if they are willing to reach for it. This is their last big chance to change the dynamic in those key battleground states with a single shot.

How the campaigns read the polls may determine their strategy. The Romney campaign would like us to ignore every poll but the Gallup daily tracking poll in which Romney is ahead by 7 points. If that's what they really believe, then we'd expect a different Romney than the one who seized on the president's remarks about Libya in the last debate. Anxious to score points, Romney lost his way by focusing so precisely on the president's words. If he's really got a solid 7-point buffer, he merely needs to look presidential, make his case for a world of clarity, and commit no unforced errors. Why should he risk the race by pressing his foreign-policy case too forcefully? He might look intemperate, and even in the best circumstances what he stands to pick up might not be that great. Voters care more about the economy, and foreign policy is typically the incumbent's turf. In that reading of the polls, all Romney has to do is make sure his tie is straight and that he does nothing to accidentally scare swing state voters.

How does Obama's team see this third encounter? The president battled back in the second debate, but not enough to make up all the ground he lost in their first meeting. The Pew poll shows that the president's foreign policy advantage has dropped, along with his poll numbers. A month ago Obama led Romney by 15 points on foreign policy, now he only leads by 4. That may very well be the result of Romney's overall surge--people are seeing him in a more favorable light so they see him more favorably across all questions.

Whenever both men drill down on a topic and seem particularly passionate, think about the voters in battleground states. So if the scuffle is over Libya, think about trust and suburban women. Romney wants you to think that the president isn't being honest with you about the chain of events. Obama wants you to think that Romney is so politically craven that he won't be a good steward of the office. He's driven by politics, not a core set of values. When you hear about China, think about Ohio blue collar workers. When you hear talk about defense spending, think about Virginia; the state is the No. 1 recipient of federal defense dollars. In the key swing district of Hampton Roads, 45 percent of the economy is tied to the military.

If the candidates are using foreign policy as a proxy to appeal to battleground-state voters, it means the substance is going to be a good distance from reality. Every president faces a foreign-policy crisis pretty early into his administration. When he does, he must adapt his thinking to conditions as he finds them, rather than to conditions he pretended existed when he was campaigning. John F. Kennedy campaigned against the "missile gap" with the Soviet Union. Then he got into office and found out the United States had more ICBMs than the Soviets. Promises made in these debates are quickly undone in office. Bill Clinton was going to get tough on China, but then handed Beijing most-favored nation status. George W. Bush was going to have a humble foreign policy and eschew nation building, right before he invaded Iraq and tried to build a new nation-state there.

Barack Obama has his own surprises. He learned that a covert cyber-war was underway with Iran. He learned that having plans for Afghanistan was far different than getting a reluctant Pentagon to implement those plans. And he learned that the world is a messy place.

When he came to office, Obama's advisers articulated an especially rosy view of the world. Problems could be solved simply by having the president arrive in some foreign capital to address the people. After Obama's 2009 "Cairo speech," in which he outlined his view for relations with the Muslim world, his then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel heralded it as "one of the most significant foreign policy speeches," saying the president "did 20 years' worth of work ... for advancing America's interests ... We are no longer the issue in that region of the world." Well, it's 2012 now and the United States is still the issue in that part of the world. After all, it's American embassies--not European embassies--that are being attacked.

Not only does a president's national security view change once in office, but much of foreign policy-making is shrouded from the public that it's hard to know what to zero in on. If we really wanted to get to the heart of how these two men will lead, we'd ask them more questions about the attributes required to handle these issues, instead of asking them to repeat well-worn talking points. We'd ask them about what crisis they've been through and how it tested them, how they assimilate information, who'd they pick to be on their staff, and how quickly they adapt. Any moderator who asked those questions would be criticized as too airy, but they're the questions you'd ask if you think about what a president actually has to do in office.

The New York Times reports that the United States is contemplating new talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program. This is likely to prompt a talk about talk. Gov. Romney will charge that the president is naive about the possibility of working with Iran. But the reality is that the president has not relied on talk alone. Obama has overseen a large-scale cyber-war against the country and has worked steadily with U.S. allies to squeeze the Iranian economy through sanctions.

This is, by far, the most important immediate foreign policy question: Which man do you want to manage the delicate mess? On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile showdown, we know that avoiding war requires patience, the willingness to deal with and sometimes ignore your advisers who come with biases of their own.

The skirmishing about Libya will be more about trust than the troubled country itself. Is the president trying to hide something? Romney fixated on his language during the last debate, over-eager to catch him in a fib. Though Romney focused on the wrong phrase--Obama had said "war on terror"--it was clear from the president was trying to dodge something. The voter asked Obama a direct question: Who was responsible for not providing security at the consulate? The president never answered, choosing instead to shame Romney for suggestion that he was acting politically. He better come with a better answer Monday night.

Romney, for his part, has been so eager to criticize the president on Libya he has overshot his critique twice. At one point in the second encounter, he seemed to claim that the president's fundraising trip to Nevada somehow hampered the questioning of witnesses on the ground in Benghazi, as if the president were the one there holding the pen and notepad. He better come with a more credible line of attack.

The debate over China will round out the list of the most likely foreign policy flash points. There are so many reasons that China should be an important issue, but the one that will matter most can be found in the key swing state of Ohio. Obama's ground generals in Ohio want him to talk about China because blue collar voters can be moved if one candidate can be blamed for helping China steal American jobs. Obama hit this hard in the last debate: "When he talks about getting tough on China, keep in mind that Gov. Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China and is currently investing in countries--in--in companies that are building surveillance equipment for China to spy on its own folks. That's--governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China."

Romney's retort is that he will name China as a currency manipulator on the first day he's in office. (Of course, even Romney's surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says that posture will start a trade war with Beijing, which will complicate all his other days in office.) But more to the point: Are voters in Ohio moved by the currency manipulation line? When Romney frames it as making sure China will play by the rules, he seems to be gaining some traction. In the Pew poll, Romney holds a 9-point lead over Obama on dealing with China's trade policies (49 percent to 40 percent). Among independent voters, Romney holds a 16-point advantage (50 percent to 34 percent).

For 90 minutes Monday night, the candidates will tour the world. It might get confusing. They're going to cover a lot of time zones. After tonight, they're going to turn the telescope around and forget the rest of the world. They'll even forget 41 states in their own country in favor of the battleground states. Eventually, they might even make the whole contest about one state: Ohio. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation and the world.

More from Slate:

Dear Undecided Voter: Do You Exist?
The Persistent, Zombie-Like Ohio Lead for Obama
Republicans Said Obama Misrepresented the Libya attack. Now the Joke's On Them.

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