Workers prepare the set for Monday's presidential debate in Boca...

Workers prepare the set for Monday's presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla. (Oct. 21, 2012) Credit: AP

In Monday night's foreign policy debate, GOP candidate Mitt Romney did what conventional wisdom dictates and Republican conservatives feared: He moved toward the middle -- rather mildly so, at that.

Romney considerably tamped down his previously bellicose attitude toward problems in the Mideast.

There was no talk of a joint U.S.-Israeli preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

President Barack Obama struck preemptively, saying, "I will stand with Israel if they are attacked." Said Romney, "I want to underscore the same point the president made" -- that he, too, would stand with Israel.

Throughout the campaign, Romney all but called for direct U.S. military intervention in Syria. Now, he said emphatically, "I don't want to have our troops in Syria." And while he earlier supported arming Syrian opposition groups, last night he seemed to have come around to the Obama administration's position that we shouldn't be arming anybody until we know who it is we are arming.

Rather than repeat his insistence that the U.S. stay on in Afghanistan past 2014, he expressed agreement, perhaps sensing growing public displeasure with the U.S. presence there, with that departure date.

On the controversial question of the administration's nearly unrestricted drone warfare, Romney said, "I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology." Despite urging from his partisans, Romney passed up a chance to attack Obama in the lethal Benghazi debacle, instead quickly sliding into praise for tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

Obama has also been criticized from the right for pressuring pro-U.S. dictator Hosni Mubarak into resigning, although, as Obama pointed out, his brutal repression of young, pro-democracy demonstrators made U.S. support increasingly untenable. Romney added that once anger against the repression exploded, "I felt the same way the president did." The president picked up on this unexpected run of agreement: "There have been times, Governor, frankly during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you'd do the same things we did, but you'd say them louder and somehow that would make a difference." Over the objections of moderator Bob Schieffer, Obama and Romney kept circling back to domestic issues -- the economy, the auto bailout, taxes, the shaky math behind Romney's still-nebulous tax plan -- subjects clearly of more interest to the candidates and, one suspects, the voters as well.

Romney, playing risk-averse defense, lost the debate almost by default. But with two weeks to the election, foreign policy doesn't much matter. It was just a debate they had to get out of the way to return to the real meat: the economy.

Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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