Let’s say you are head coach of an NFL team playing in the Super Bowl. Your team is up by 1 point with 4 minutes to go in the 4th quarter. You have the best running game in the league, and your opponent has the worst run defense in the league. You have a marginal passing game, with potential for big plays but a quarterback prone to occasional interceptions, while your opponent has a strong pass defense. What do you do?
Obviously, you play to your strength. Keep running the ball right down your opponents throat, control the ball, don’t fumble, and run out the clock. Resist the temptation to pass and run up the score.
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the state of the campaign right now, and the tactical choice facing Romney at tonight’s debate.
Domestic policy is the running game. Romney has been pounding Obama on the economy, jobs, and debt, and Obama has yet to come up with an effective response. Romney is far more qualified and experienced than the President on these topics, and the first debate proved he is far more eloquent.
Foreign policy is the passing game. We have some decent arguments against Obama, and might score some points. But Romney is clearly less experienced and comfortable than Obama, and it showed in the second debate when he overextended himself on the Benghazi issue and got slapped down.
Right now Romney is winning. He has been up in the RCP average for over a week, and the trends are in his favor. The swing states are starting to swing in his direction. Add in the natural break for the challenger that usually happens in the last week or two, and he’s on path for a solid victory. He does not have to score by damaging Obama; all he has to do is avoid turnovers and run out the clock.
So what to do at the foreign policy debate tonight: attack aggressively, or hold back? I think the smart choice is to hold back, for several reasons:
1. Romney does not have to hurt Obama. Obama is already hurt. Romney just has to avoid letting him recover.
2. Obama has to hurt Romney. But Romney does not have a foreign policy record to attack. The 0nly way Romney can be hurt is if he sticks his neck out with an ill-advised attack like last week.
3. Undecided voters don’t care about foreign policy. The audience watching the debate will be different than the audiences for the first two debates. This one will be mostly political junkies, and they all have their minds made up already.
4. It’s the economy, stupid.
So going back to the football metaphor, Romney should play to his strength and keep running the economic football down Obama’s throat. Find ways to tie foreign policy issues back to domestic economic well being. Avoid the temptation of long bomb foreign policy attacks. Resist the urge to try to score big and hurt Obama badly. Protect the football, get first downs, run down the clock, and win the game.