In the eyes of many of his strongest supporters, Mitt Romney actually won Monday night in Boca Raton by losing his foreign-policy debate with President Obama.
Many Republicans and conservatives were grinding their teeth as they watched Mr. Romney bypass numerous opportunities in Florida to hit Mr. Obama on his administration’s security failures and days of misstatements over the Benghazi disaster.
But in declining the openings to revisit the disputed and confused Libya claims made by the president and his administration and allies in the press, Mr. Romney avoided giving the press and the Democrats a stick with which to continue beating him, GOP strategists say.
In the second debate, Mr. Romney criticized the president for failing for more than a week to acknowledge that the Benghazi consulate incident was not part of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video but a terrorist attack.
During that debate, CNN moderator Candy Crowley notably chimed in to claim Mr. Romney was wrong.
Afterwards, much of the press coverage treated the moderator’s “correction” as an article of truth. As late as Monday afternoon, a TV news anchor referred to Mr. Romney’s “infamous Libya flub” on who said and did what in the days following the orchestrated attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
“To try to re-litigate Benghazi would have done [Mr. Romney] no good,” GOP campaign consultant Floyd Ciruli said. “It would have let the press say he’s out on the far right with the right-wing conspiracy advocates. The press will not let him win on the issue.”
Most important, analysts said, the Republican nominee took a well-calculated risk — that in disappointing the more hawkish members of his base, he would win over more undecideds.
“He took a small risk in disappointing the more hawkish among his supporters by assuaging the fear of some undecideds and soft Romney supporters that he is a warmonger and that somehow he would take the country into a radically different direction,” said conservative campaign consultant Brett A. Sciotto.
In a hotel suite in Northern Virginia on Monday night, a roomful of Republicans and conservative leaders hurled angry words at Mr. Romney’s image on a large TV screen as the nominee appeared to avoid challenging Mr. Obama, consistently offering up more agreement than disagreement with the president.
Afterwards, though, the Republicans said that while Mr. Obama may have won the debate, Mr. Romney had the better strategy.
“Obama clearly showed he was in command of foreign policy — after four years of security briefings as president,” Mr. Sciotto said. “But Romney did what he needed to do — held his ground.”
Mr. Sciotto and Mr. Ciruli said the risk Mr. Romney took with his base was well worth the potential payoff with independents and soft Romney supporters.
In refusing to endorse a ground war in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Iran or anywhere else, Mr. Romney actually played to the majority opinion in America at the moment.
“Every poll I have seen — and I do lot of foreign policy consulting — shows the public, including Republicans, is not interested in going into Syria and want out of Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mr. Ciruli said. “The overwhelming majority of voters oppose intervention and there is no Republican majority in favor of intervening militarily in the Middle East.”
The latest Pew poll found that even on withdrawal from Afghanistan, where Mr. Romney has been most critical of Mr. Obama, 48 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents favor a full troop pullout now, regardless of whether things are settled in that country.
The same poll found 53 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents want the U.S. less involved in the Middle East.