It’s tempting to, once and for all, toss foreign policy aside and conclude that it won’t matter in this year’s election.

But it would be naïve to say that Monday night’s debate didn’t have some effect on the 2012 race.

Foreign-policy issues can either burnish or burst impressions of a candidate’s leadership abilities, and that matters in how candidates are perceived, along with offering hints on how they’d govern as president.

If Mitt Romney looks like he can lead the world in taking on China, then certainly he can lead the country in taking on the teachers unions. Leadership isn’t just about bringing an international coalition together to save the White Cliffs of Dover, it’s also about resolving the fiscal cliff in the United States.

Thus, even if voters aren’t particularly interested in foreign policy this year, and even if the candidates’ differences on international affairs were difficult to divine in the debate, it still was a chance for President Obama to reassert his leadership and for Romney to further prove his.

Romney has made massive gains on the leadership question as he’s risen in the polls. In a Pew Research poll taken this month, 44 percent said Romney was a stronger leader than the president, while 44 percent picked Obama as the stronger one. In Pew’s previous poll, Obama had held a 13 percent advantage on the question. Meanwhile, in an ABC News/Washington Post survey taken this month, Obama led Romney by just 2 percentage points on leadership. And, finally, in a new Politico/George Washington battleground poll, Romney took a 2-point lead on leadership after trailing the president throughout the year.

Romney’s gains have come at the swing-state level, too. 

Perhaps the most dramatic result comes from the must-win state of Ohio. In Quinnipiac University’s new poll of the Buckeye State, 64 percent of likely voters said Romney had strong leadership qualities, while 58 percent said the same about Obama. Independents gave Romney an even stronger show of support, with 67 percent calling him a strong leader and just 54 percent saying the same about Obama. 

According to a new series of Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS swing state polls, the story is the same elsewhere, as Romney bests Obama on leadership in the swing states of Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Romney has already begun to exploit his surge on the question of leadership, using it to tap into frustration over the upcoming fiscal cliff and Congress’s perpetual inability to forge consensus. In a new television ad called “Bringing People Together,” Romney makes a non-ideological pitch. 

“We need to have leadership — leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat.”

Indeed, Romney has been increasingly trumpeting his record as governor of the deeply blue state of Massachusetts, pointing out that the Legislature was dominated by Democrats during his tenure. He’s used that measure of leadership not just to make the positive case for himself, but also to rip Obama. 

In another new TV spot, he accuses Obama of failing to work with others and keep his promise of bringing the country together. That’s not an ideological accusation but a temperamental one, and thus differs from Romney’s standard attacks.

But Romney isn’t without his own set of problems on the issue. One crucial aspect of leadership is a willingness to spell out an agenda and take tough stands. Romney has been vague on the first and perpetually shifting on the second as he’s transitioned from the ideology of a GOP primary to the mushy middle of a general election. 

During the 2004 campaign, Democratic presidential nominee John KerryJohn Forbes Kerry2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states When it comes to Colombia, America is in a tough spot 36 people who could challenge Trump in 2020 MORE was attacked for being vague and inconsistent and, indeed, among those who said leadership was the deciding factor in determining their vote, 87 percent broke for George W. Bush and just 12 percent for Kerry.

Yet if the past month is any indication, Romney seems to have made progress in shedding the image of a Massachusetts politician who’ll say anything to get elected. Instead, polls suggest that voters are increasingly looking at him as a leader, which is perhaps why he is, at this moment, actually leading in most polls.

Heinze, the founder of, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on