We all saw former Gov. Mitt Romney's bravura show Wednesday night.
It was a great performance, in skill and virtuosity like nothing seen in living memory. Romney managed the trick of neatly parrying every one of President Obama's attacks, putting the president on the defensive, and establishing himself as a nice guy along the way.
He seized the mantle of bipartisanship and ran away with it unchallenged by the president. Romney even told Jim Lehrer that he would defund him, but said it with such good humor that everyone laughed.
But Romney could lose it all if he makes a key strategic mistake in the third debate, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. on October 22.
That debate will focus on foreign policy.
Romney is poised to attack Obama's record on slowing down the Iranian nuclear program, his plan to unilaterally disarm much or most of our remaining nuclear stockpile, the admitted loss of Egypt as an ally, and generally "apologizing for America."
The danger here is that if Romney comes across as a chest-beating, scorched-earth conservative, drawing lines in the sand over Tehran, the South China Sea, and charging headlong into Syria, the tiny slice of the American electorate that is still undecided or susceptible to changing their minds will hear only a single word resonating in their ears:
After years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing the American people want is another George W. Bush-style war of choice. This is especially true for the cohort of young independents that will determine the outcome of this election.
How, then, can Romney critique President Obama's foreign policy without stepping into this trap?
He must first reassure the American people that under a Romney administration the United States will not choose to launch a war of occupation.
Romney should approvingly quote former Defense Sec. Bob Gates to West Point cadets: "[A]ny future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Romney should then go on to wrap his entire evening around a tried and true formulation: Peace through strength.
Romney should remind Americans that the prime danger of war comes about when a dominant power begins to show weakness. He can then run through the shrinking size of the U.S. Navy (smaller than our fleet in 1917) and military aircraft (smaller than anytime since 1947). Romney should critique the plan to bleed off trained, military manpower, as well as the Obama administration's announced plans to unilaterally reduce our nuclear forces below the just-agreed upon low thresholds of the new START Treaty.
This last point should be an especially tender spot for Obama, since the United States is the only nuclear power on Earth that lacks the capability of serially manufacturing nuclear weapons—and would be, therefore, incapable of reversing course if Obama's reductions turn out to be a mistake.
Romney can then reassure the American people that he will return us to the Reagan formula of using a strong and resilient military capability to avoid a war. This formula won the Cold War without firing a shot. And today it can result in our ability to control tensions and manage challenges without war.
In contrast, while allowing our defenses to deteriorate, Obama expands our list of ironclad assurances to allies to come to their aid if attacked, including a pledge to extend America's nuclear umbrella to over 30 countries. If this defensive umbrella is stretched and frayed, how credible is our protection?
And how likely is that to cause miscalculation and conflict?
Teddy Roosevelt famously said to speak softly and carry a big stick. The Obama administration is leading us down a path in which we speak loudly on just about every global issue, while carrying a smaller and smaller stick.
This is not just ridiculous. It is dangerous.
In short, just as Romney managed to steal the mantle of moderation and bipartisanship from Obama, so, too, must he make the most out of this opportunity to portray Obama as likelier to get us into a shooting war.