By David Usborne in Boca Raton in Florida
– 24 October 2012
A pugnacious President Barack Obama has accelerated into the final two-week stretch of the US campaign at a rally in Florida today as he replayed the punches he landed on Mitt Romney at last night’s foreign policy debate.
"Last night he was all over the map, did you notice?" Mr Obama said of his foe to loud cheers at the rally in Delray Beach. Voters face "a choice between two very different visions for this country... I hope that during the debate I made those differences very clear," he said. "The greatest responsibility I have as president is to keep the American people safe."
While snap polling gave last night’s debate – the last of three between the candidates – to the incumbent, it also allowed Mr Romney to show he could at least go toe-to-toe in an area where he is less experienced, even if he mostly ceded control of the night to the president. Mr Romney also used the encounter to complete his very deliberate march to the moderate middle, away from stances taken earlier this year when the conservative base was his target.
With polls showing the race deadlocked, the strategy may be paying off. But it has also prompted a new Obama slogan – that the Governor has "Stage 3 Romnesia". Mr Obama went after him again today. "We had a severe outbreak last night. We are accustomed to seeing politicians change their position from four years ago," he told the 11,000-strong crowd. "We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four days ago."
Even if Mr Obama emerged as the victor in the latter two face-offs, the main legacy of this year’s trio of debates will surely be the forcefulness of Mr Romney in the first debate in Denver three weeks ago. That performance, perhaps combined with a fading of the glow created by the Democrat convention in early September, saw the race transformed from a likely glide back to power for Mr Obama into a contest that is now wide open.
Democrats will now be searching for evidence that the Romney surge is ending. As part of an urgent effort to recapture the momentum, the Obama campaign has released a detailed four-year blueprint in the form of a glossy 19-page booklet and accompanying YouTube video called "A plan for Jobs. Middle Class Security".
Last night, Mr Romney was the man most Democrats had expected to show up at that first debate in Denver. Moist of upper lip and seemingly on edge, he was rarely combative. While he delivered rhetorical jibes at the president for weakness on the foreign stage and for mishandling the Iran nuclear crisis and the ongoing tumult in the Middle East, he concurred with him on several points, for instance on his use of drones to take out al-Qa’ida’s leadership, on setting a 2014 end-date for combat in Afghanistan and ruling out military involvement in Syria.
Mr Obama, by contrast, was aggressive and even condescending. "I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong," he said. And he mocked his rival for charging that the US Naval fleet has fallen to unacceptable levels.
"We also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater - nuclear submarines."
He also accused Mr Romney of nostalgia for a past age of foreign policy. Pricking him for once averring that Russia is America’s "main geopolitical foe" today instead of the terror networks, he declared: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s."
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