Mitt Romney truly believes he can become commander in chief, convinced that the tide that turned in his favour after the first debate will continue through November 6.
Critics will rightly take apart the shallow, almost vacuous, sections of Romney's scripted responses --- his reduction of the Middle East and North Africa, time and again, to terrorists in Libya, Al Qa'eda in northern Mali, failure in Iraq, and Syria first and foremost as Tehran's ally and "Iran's route to the sea"; his inability to offer ideas beyond those mantras; his lack of interest or competence in taking the debate to most of the world beyond those two regions. They will smile at how the Republican’s invocation of a "strong defence" rebuffed by Obama's “horses and bayonets” line that his opponent was stuck in 1916: "Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our [current] military works.”
But the eventual fortune of a candidate does not necessarily rest on such a critique. Instead, what Mitt Romney accomplished was the neutralising of any arguments that he is a war-monger or a George W. Bush retread who can only exercise American leadership through military might. The surprise of the night was how often the Republican began his answers with “I don't blame the administration," or “I agree with the President,” before launching into an explanation of how his policies differed from Obama's primarily --- and, on occasions, only --- in the emphasis on that U.S. leadership.
The closest Romney came to invoking Bush's failed foreign policy was a brief explanation of his belief in a "peace through strength" philosophy, a standard Romney campaign theme to distinguish himself from the supposed weakness of Obama. However, this played second fiddle all night to Mitt's presentation of himself as a moderate, responsible leader.
Romney's response to the first question of the night, on Libya and the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, was telling. He could have persisted in his denunciation of the White House's response. Instead, perhaps because this tactic backfired in the second debate when Romney mis-represented Obama's words about a "terrorist act," the challenger presented himself as the leader who could offer the solution to the problem of extremism in the Muslim world.
Romney began with the admonition, “We can't kill our way out of this mess,” and followed up with the I'm-not-Bush as well as I'm-not-Obama distinction: “We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan.” Then, in his vision of how the U.S. can best “help the Muslim world” to reject anti-American terrorism, Romney did not recite neo-conservative platitudes. He pointed to a meeting of Arab scholars, organised by the UN, as the supposed inspiration for his belief in more economic development, better education and gender equality, and a commitment to assist in the creation of civil societies.
Similarly, Romney swung away from the impression that he would give a blank check to Israel for an attack on Iran. Instead, he preferred an emphasis on “crippling sanctions”, even though it is harder to distinguish that from Obama’s current approach to Tehran.
If there is a leading message in a campaign where foreign policy is a distant second place to economic issues, it is that Americans, like the rest of the world, are war-weary. That weariness, in a debate launched by a Republican administration's response to "9-11", means that Romney had to ensure he is not seen as George W. Bush, Mark II.
He may not have shown much beyond this last night, but Romney carried out this task. While it remains to be seen if this convinced many undecided Americans to vote for him, he at least ensured that he did not turn them to Obama with a "hawkish" foreign policy.
That strategy, rather than Romney's performance, is enough for the Republican to take this race to the wire. If he can build on it over the next two weeks with a presentation of commander in chief of the Economy, it may be enough to win it.
Lucas is professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham and editor of the news site EA WorldView. Haddigan is the news site's chief writer on U.S. politics.