Debate Round 3: Split Decision Or Knock Out?

The presidential candidates squared off in their final debate on Monday, sparring over foreign policy and national security. Host Michel Martin discusses the debate with speechwriters Mary Kate Cary, who has worked with Republicans, and Paul Orzulak, who has worked with Democrats.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, when you were in school, did you ever wonder how your teachers were spending their weekends? Well, these days some of them might be hanging out on Twitter talking about you. Or at least how to be a better teacher and other issues in education. It's called Sat Chat and we'll tell you more about it and we'll speak with the man behind it in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk about the final debate between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney last night. Last night's focus was foreign policy and both candidates flexed their foreign policy muscles - diplomatically, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.

MARTIN: After each debate we've gone to two people who know a thing or two about the style and substance of political debate. They're back with us. Paul Orzulak was a speechwriter for President Clinton as well as Al Gore during the 2000 election. He's now a founder and principal in West Wing Writers.

Also with us is Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

PAUL ORZULAK: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: OK. Now, I went to Paul first last time, so Mary Kate, I'm going to give you the first word this time.

MARY KATE CARY: OK.

MARTIN: We want to get into the substance in a minute, but first I just want to get a sense of just what moment stood out for you.

CARY: Well, first of all, Happy Debate Liberation Day, Paul.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Me too.

CARY: Yes, you two. Happy Debate Liberation Day.

MARTIN: All of us.

CARY: Yeah. I think my favorite moment last night was when Governor Romney said attacking me is not an agenda. Because to me that really summed up the whole election. And I think that the president last night came across more as a challenger than the president. He was on the attack the whole time. And I thought that Romney came across as the center-right candidate that the country was comfortable with.

The country's war-weary. He really came across as using the word peace more than Obama did. And I thought he represented kind of safe change and that's what has been the goal of the Romney campaign throughout these debates, is to remain a viable alternative that is a credible choice for most voters. And he did that last night. He passed the commander-in-chief test.

MARTIN: Paul?

ORZULAK: Well, first I'm sensitive to the person who tweeted that both candidates came prepared with binders full of boring last night.

And I think foreign policy generally doesn't strike a chord with people, but for people who tuned in, they saw two very different views of the world. My favorite moment I think was the president's really strong response on Israel. When Governor Romney accused him of flying by Israel, the president came back and said, actually, I did go and I didn't go to go to a fundraiser. I went to visit the Holocaust museum, to go to a town that was being bombed by Hamas.

MARTIN: So is it, in fact, true that Mitt Romney took fundraisers with him when he did go to Israel?

ORZULAK: He did. But to me the most striking part, again, was the tone of the debate. And really, the governor's decision for the second debate (unintelligible) to soft pedal his more extreme moments from the campaign. I think debate Romney seems like the safe change, as Mary Kate said. I think candidate Romney is very different.

For a debate audience, he seemed to take a version of the Hippocratic Oath last night, which is, you know, first thing do no harm. He didn't want to say anything. He didn't want to mispronounce anything that made people think that he wasn't credible to be a commander-in-chief. So if you were just reaching for that extremely low bar, yeah, he met that bar. But I'm not sure that he presented strength and leadership in the same way the president did.

MARTIN: Well, more than in previous debates there were moments where the candidates seemed to agree with each other. So I want to talk about a moment where they try to provide some contrast, and that is on the issue of Iran. So we'll hear first from President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

OBAMA: The clock is ticking. Now, we're not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere, and I've been very clear to them. You know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program. And that clock is ticking.

MARTIN: And then let's listen to how Governor Mitt Romney followed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: From the very beginning, one of the challenges we've had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and felt that the administration was not as strong it they needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength. And I say that because from the very beginning the president in his campaign some four years ago said he'd meet with all the world's worst actors in his first year.

He'd sit down with Chavez and Kim Jung Il, with Castro and with President Ahmadinejad of Iran. And I think they looked and thought, well, that's an unusual honor to receive from the president of the United States.

MARTIN: So what were the candidates trying to get across in this exchange? Paul, I'll go to you first on this one.

ORZULAK: First, let me say that I am actually glad that the rhetoric around Iran was a little softer last night and less fiery than past debates because the last thing we need is to get ahead of ourselves and committing to some kind of war there, and it's a scary issue for everybody.

I think this is another difference without real distinction. The governor has had stronger language on the campaign trail around Iran, but in truth, at the end of the day, when you ask him, well, what are you going to do differently - well, I would have put the sanctions in sooner. OK. But what are you going to do differently now? Well, I'll tighten the sanctions.

So he doesn't really have a difference of position. He just has a difference in rhetoric. And last night he soft pedaled it a little bit more. But the larger question is, what's your judgment? Where have you been on these issues before? You know, Governor Romney didn't say anything about Iran four years ago. On Afghanistan he was wrong and switched. On Iraq he was wrong and switched. Two months ago - a month ago he said he still wanted troops there.

So this question of judgment, how you perform in a debate, unfortunately, comes with a 16 month record behind it. And you know, he's not saying anything different on Iran. He's just using it as an opportunity to try to go after the president.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: The president last night, by pointing out some of the things Paul just pointed out, was allowing Mitt Romney to close the likeability gap. You know, when the president was on the attack all the time and Romney was coming across, as Paul is saying, as soft pedaling, the likeability gap closed in the numbers after - the CNN poll afterwards.

And what Romney was doing in that Iran question was reminding voters that you reap what you sow. He's reminding people why the wrong track numbers are so high, that we had an ambassador killed and other Americans as well. Last month we had 20 embassies under siege. This is no coincidence. The U.S. is not stronger and safer over the last four years and voters know it. No amount of White House backpedaling on Libya or Iran or any - Israel - will change what voters are seeing, which is that our enemies are on the rise and that the world is a more dangerous place and we need a better policy than the one we've had.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about last night's presidential debate, the final one of this campaign season, with former presidential speechwriters Mary Kate Cary, who worked with Republicans, and Paul Orzulak, who worked with Democrats.

Mary Kate, couldn't the same argument that Mitt Romney's made to President Obama be turned back on him, to say attacking the president is not an agenda? I mean the president repeatedly pointed out places over the past 16 months...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...where Mr. Romney has changed his position. The one that stood out for me is when he was asked over the course of the campaign what was our most important foreign policy threat, he said Russia.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: So wouldn't the same criticism be attached to Mitt Romney, that he's all over the place?

CARY: Yeah. I think the president, by drilling down so many times last night and focusing in on Romney's changes in position or changes in tone that Paul's pointing out, what that created was this impression that the president was going small. John McCain said this morning small ball. And Romney was going big picture. And it left this impression that the president might've won the battle last night but he's losing the war.

And I think Romney illustrated that very well by continuing to go back up to 30,000 feet and say we're on the wrong track here. And I think that was effective.

MARTIN: What about that, Paul?

ORZULAK: Well...

MARTIN: What about that?

ORZULAK: Actually, this is the president that ended the war and is ending another one that the previous Republican president started on two credit cards. Look...

MARTIN: But do the voters know that?

ORZULAK: Yeah, they do know that, I think. Last night - even Karl Rove said that the president won last night. CNN had the president winning by eight points. CBS had him up by more than 20 points. I mean people know who won last night.

MARTIN: But does that matter?

ORZULAK: I do think it matters because - we're not at the big bounce point in the campaign right now after a third debate, but a tiny bounce, even in Ohio or Florida or any of these battleground states, will make a huge difference. I think what we're seeing from the governor the last two debates, he has been soft pedaling all his extreme positions.

Last week he presented as the guy who hasn't called for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, who will appoint Supreme Court justices, probably two, that would do just that. This week he moved away from his extreme rhetoric in his positions on Libya. Laura Ingraham this morning wondered why he took a kid glove approach on that issue.

You know, it's because he's soft pedaling every single part of his real self and he's making the whole argument about the economy, which is probably the only thing he has going for him right now in this election. If people think the economy is on the wrong track, that's his argument. If people think, well, we've made a lot of progress and the fact that we're not far enough along, excuse enough to go...

...is on the wrong track. That's his argument. If people think, well, we've made a lot of progress and that is - the fact that we're not far enough along - excuse enough to go back to the policies that put us in the hole in the first place - that's the question.

But, you know, the governor has no interest in anything but the economy right now. He's not going to talk about his extreme positions on fair pay for women, on abortion. He's not going to talk about...

CARY: He's not - I think...

MARTIN: Why should he? Why should he?

CARY: Yeah. He's...

ORZULAK: Well, exactly. Well, but that's who he really is.

CARY: And - well, and he's not an extremist. That's the story of the last - this debate season, to me, is this unmasking of the creature that the Obama campaign created of Mitt Romney as an extremist kook, warmongering, crazy guy.

ORZULAK: I'm quoting him.

CARY: Well, I'm just saying I think that...

ORZULAK: There's a devastating, four minute video.

CARY: The voters are seeing that he's not the guy that the Obama people made him out to be. It's very similar to the 1980 Reagan debate where, in the last debate, Reagan showed he was not a warmonger and went on to victory. They're unmasking this caricature that's been created of Mitt Romney and the Mitt Romney that people saw last night - they like.

ORZULAK: Mary Kate, they caricature...

MARTIN: I'm going to give Paul the last word. I gave Mary Kate the first word, so I'm going...

CARY: OK.

MARTIN: ...to give Paul the last word.

ORZULAK: The caricature is the governor's own quotes. There's the devastating four minute video by the DNC that shows him saying one thing and then saying another, sometimes on the same day, on 15 different issues. And to walk away from all those things is fine in a debate, but voters need to know this is who this person has been for the last 16 months.

MARTIN: Who has the momentum going out of this debate? I don't think that anybody disagrees that these debates have been - especially the first one - have played a role in the campaign. Does anybody disagree about that? Do you disagree?

CARY: No. More than ever before.

MARTIN: That these debates actually have been influential...

CARY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...in shaping the voters' opinions?

ORZULAK: Again, if the Obama that showed up last night was in the first debate, this would be over, but he didn't and the debate made a huge difference.

MARTIN: So who's got the momentum going into the next two weeks? Less than two weeks.

CARY: As my old boss (unintelligible) would say, I think Romney's got the big mo' because, if you look at the three debates, two were a draw, one was a win for Romney. That gives a net positive to Romney and it's part of this bigger storyline of people seeing who the real Mitt Romney was, unfiltered, and that's why the momentum's shifting.

ORZULAK: I think the big mo' is less a question in ground game. I think, you know, the president has three times the number of staffers on the ground in Ohio, in Nevada, in Colorado. When it comes to election day, it's turnout, it's getting your people to the polls, you know, and I'll put my money on the president's team and I believe - I think the president's going to get reelected.

MARTIN: That was Paul Orzulak. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton, as well as Al Gore, during the 2000 election. He's now a founder and principle of West Wing Writers. He was here in our Washington studios, along with, once again, Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She is now a blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

We will be seeing you again after the election.

CARY: Yeah. The day after.

MARTIN: Thank you both so much.

ORZULAK: Thank you.

CARY: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, it's been around for almost a century. The mortgage interest tax deduction.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: The United States has always focused on the idea of owning your own piece of land. Everybody should have a home and that's a very big part of the American dream.

MARTIN: But this election season, the deduction is up for a debate. We'll ask NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax why the mortgage interest deduction is in the crosshairs. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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