Foreign policy was not supposed to be a big issue in this campaign. Mitt Romney wanted to make it a referendum on jobs and the economy, and with those improving, albeit at a disappointing pace, Republicans have been hammering at President Obama for being weak the international front. They conveniently ignore how much more effective and welcome abroad the incumbent is compared to his Republican predecessor whose name Romney and the GOP never even mention.
Romney will again criticize the apparent confusion surrounding the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three of his aides. Was it planned act of terror or the outgrowth of anti-American protests? Why wasn’t security enhanced as the ambassador requested? Obama may remind listeners that Congressional Republicans – a wildly unpopular crowd who Democrats want to tie to Romney – had earlier cut hundreds of millions in embassy security funding.
President Obama will talk about his successes in fighting terrorism and remind the last two hermits in a far off cave who might not have heard yet that he’s the gunslinger who took down Osama bin Laden.
The inexperienced Romney has to show that his botched overseas trip last summer was a fluke and by January he will be ready for prime time, and that his foreign policy creds extend beyond hiring a lot of Bush retreads and having offshore bank accounts and tax shelters in many foreign countries.
Romney has been trying particularly to make this election a referendum on Obama's handling of the US-Israel relationship, with help from his hearty sidekicks Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson. In Boca Raton, Florida, tonight he will be playing particularly to Jewish voters in that part of the battleground state, where Republicans have been spending unprecedented millions trying to paint himself as a loyal Likudnik and the President too sympathetic to the Arab cause.
On reports of possible bilateral talks with Iran, look for the President to deny there has been an agreement to meet, and Romney to accuse the administration of leaking classified intelligence about a possible meeting next year. Romney will echo Netanyahu's well-founded skepticism about negotiations with the Iranians, and Obama will counter that his inexperienced opponent should give diplomacy a chance before succumbing to the advice from many of the same advisors who anxiously rushed to war with Iraq a decade ago,
Romney will call Obama soft on China and Russia, (a variation of that old Republican favorite "Soft on Communism"), and the president will suggest his opponent is threatening to start a trade war with China and a return to a cold war with Russia.
The biggest problem facing Obama tonight may be not knowing which Romney will show up with his Etch-a-Sketch policy machine. Over the course of this year Romney has positioned himself on all sides of many issues as he has tried to go from Massachusetts moderate to severely conservative tea partier and now back toward the center. Along the way he has gone from declaring the Arab-Israeli peace process a hopeless cause to accusing Obama of not doing enough to advance it.
In tonight’s debate as in his previous appearances the big question will be the one posed to voters in Utah, a red state with 72 percent Mormon population, by the Salt Lake City Tribune in its editorial explaining why it opposes Romney’s election: "Who is this guy, really, and what in the world does he truly believe?"