OPINION - Mitt Romney displayed unusual strategy for winning during foreign policy debate

Back in his first campaign confrontation with President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney showed he knew how to win a debate. Monday night he showed he knew how to lose a debate -- in the hopes of winning the presidency.

That clearly was the secret strategy of the Republican nominee from the moment he walked onstage for the third and final debate of what had been so far a contentious, confrontational campaign.

Time after time in the debate at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney seemed to endorse Obama's most controversial policies, ranging from the use of drones to kill terrorist leaders to completing the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014. Joe Biden could hardly have done better.

For liberals it was a night of unrequited joy. But somewhat less thrilled was Brent Bozell, the archconservative founder and president of the Media Research Center. Less than an hour into the debate, Bozell tweeted an alert to his faithful followers: "Something is wrong with Romney tonight. He's refusing to challenge Obama's failed policies. He's sounding LIKE Obama. This is terrible."

And when the debate was over, cable TV's talking heads instantly and overwhelmingly informed viewers Obama "won" the debate. Won big-time. My cable news colleagues even spent (see also: wasted) many thousands of dollars on instant polls that said the same thing -- with numbers, which meant it must be true.

Time out. Why is it that, as sure as a patient's leg kick follows a doctor's knee tap, media decision-makers and reporters reflexively ask the wrong question after debates?

They cover debates like they were covering Olympic fencing, where every touch is a score that counts and total points produce the winner. But political debates aren't about seeing who won -- they are about discovering which candidate viewers would vote for if they had to cast their ballot immediately after the debate.

Obama's strong and combative debate performance no doubt solidified many Americans' vote preferences. Obama repeatedly nailed Romney for his ever-changing positions, foreign and domestic.

But Romney wasn't really talking to the vast majority of debate viewers Monday night, just a tiny fraction of them. Romney wasn't trying to impress the almost 90 percent of voters who have already decided how they will vote. His strategy was clearly just to convince those who are still undecided -- and actually, not even most of them.

Romney tried throughout the debate to make himself seem appealing and palatable to the undecided females who reside in America's suburbs. These women may well prove to be the swing voters who can decide the outcome of the still-in-doubt states -- especially Ohio, which is crucial to Republican hopes.

Think about it. They are still undecided because they have already made one crucial decision: They really aren't satisfied with the candidate they know best, Obama. They want something more, something better. Or at least something different.

In the first debate, Romney passed their first key test by showing he could share a stage with a sitting president and appear to belong there. He was greatly helped by the fact that while he forcefully attacked the president's policies, Obama seemed to be sleepwalking through the first matchup.

But these female suburban swing voters, while impressed somewhat by Romney's strong performance, were still unconvinced after the first debate, and also the second.

In this last debate, Romney appeared to have a new strategy. After a year of hardball politics, he stifled his attack inclinations and worked at coming across as not just presidential, but also reasonable and likable.

Monday night, the GOP nominee seemed to share most of Obama's policies. Pay no attention to that man behind the yearlong primary campaign curtain -- the one who harshly, repeatedly (and often inaccurately) attacked the president's policies.

Tuesday morning, refreshed after the debate that all the political chatterers said he'd just "won," Obama armed himself with a new campaign weapon: humor. In Delray Beach, Fla., Obama assured voters they needn't be concerned if they come down with a case of "Romnesia" and can't remember what they'd said all year or even last week, or what appears on their campaign website.

"Don't worry," Obama said, grinning. "Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions."

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. Email him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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