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Keeler: Will conservatives welcome Mitt Romney, dove?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the third presidential debate with President Barack Obama, held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. (Oct. 22, 2012) Credit: AP

For all the expectation months ago that foreign policy was the landmine waiting to explode under Mitt Romney’s feet, it didn’t quite happen. It was a foreign policy debate without a major Gerald Ford moment. Mitt Romney didn’t step on that landmine by saying something like what President Ford did, saying that Eastern Europe was not under Russian domination.

But Monday's debate in Boca Raton, Fla., was a debate that President Barack Obama used to repeat over and over again, whether it was on Iran or the auto bailout, how quickly Romney has changed positions. “You keep on trying to airbrush history,” Obama said, in a discussion on China that suddenly became a replay of what sort of bankruptcy Romney wanted for the auto industry.

That happened a lot in this debate. It kept veering back to domestic policy.

Both men must have watched MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where the bright line advice was that the candidates had to segue from foreign policy to domestic economy. The message had to be that we can’t be strong in the world if we’re not strong at home. Both Obama and Romney embraced that message and pivoted quickly from a discussion of the Middle East, for example, to what they’d do to create jobs.

It was a debate in which Romney agreed more with Obama than he had done in the two previous meetings. He agreed with the president’s overall thrust on key issues, but he’d have been louder, tougher, sooner.

It was also a debate that featured a new character: Mitt Romney, dove.

Despite the coterie of neocons advising him on foreign policy, despite tough talk on the campaign trail about Iran and China, Romney practically cooed.

“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said of the Middle East, after acknowledging the death of Osama bin Laden. “We want a peaceful planet,” he said.

But Romney also made clear: “I will not cut a military budget.” And he bemoaned that the Navy has fewer ships than it has had since 1917, leaving a fastball up in the strike zone for Obama, who said: “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama argued for a hardheaded assessment of the actual needs of the military today, not a mere counting of ships and planes.

They agreed that Iran must not acquire a nuclear weapon. But Obama said: “The disagreement I have with Gov. Romney is during the course of this campaign, he’s often said that we should take premature military action.” Not so, said the newly dovish Romney: “Of course, a military action is the last resort.”

On day one — a very busy one, given his repeated plan to repeal Obamacare and all — Romney would declare China a currency manipulator. Even on China, the debate pivoted back to the domestic economy: “If we took your advice on the auto industry,” said Obama, referring to Romney’s stance against the auto bailout, “we’d be buying cars from China, instead of selling cars to China.”

Again and again, Obama repeated shifts of policy from Romney on several foreign policy issues. “Here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander in chief,” Obama told him. “You’ve got to be clear.”

And Obama did his best to argue that Romney’s changes of position were anything but clear. In the debate, Romney said the United States should be out of Afghanistan in 2014, despite earlier concerns he had expressed about setting a definite date.

So Romney got out of the debate without a major explosion, but it will be interesting to hear how the right wing of his party reacts to the discovery that Romney the hawk took the night off, replaced by Romney the dove.