Election 2012: From Berkeley to Pittsburgh, few swayed by final debate

With the Giants-Cardinals baseball championship series to compete with, it was a miracle even 40 people showed up at the JCC of the East Bay for a presidential debate viewing party on Oct. 22.

In the end, the 90-minute back-and-forth focusing on foreign policy left the audience underwhelmed.

“I don’t think it adds anything to the conversation,” opined Berkeley resident Sandra Luft minutes after the debate concluded. “At this point, we’re getting a lot of repetition. I can’t believe there’s anyone who hasn’t made up their mind yet on the issues.”

With polls showing President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat, both sides were counting on the debate to pick up some stragglers — or at least solidify their bases. But as appears to be the case with the vast majority of Americans, most viewers came to the third and final debate, held at Florida’s Lynn University, with their minds pretty well set.

In one of many gatherings around the country, students at Tulane University in New Orleans watch the third presidential debate Oct. 22. photo/ap-rusty costanza

The Berkeley event was hosted by J Street, a nonpartisan group that seeks a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. J Street board member Molly Freeman, who moderated the forum, says it was notable that the Israel-Palestinian conflict didn’t figure at all in the on-screen discussion.

“[This] demonstrates how much work has yet to be done to place the two-state solution at the top of the U.S. administration’s agenda in 2013,” she said afterward. “As an American Jew, I believe friendship with Israel is not simply support for Israel right or wrong, but support for an Israel that embodies the values of democracy and equality for all. This is the promise of a two-state solution.”

In Pittsburgh, about 50 people gathered at the JCC for a similar debate-watching forum, also sponsored by J Street. The aroma of fresh popcorn wafted from a festive wheeled cart, and American and Israeli flags hung from the ceiling.

Polls have shown Obama’s support among Jewish voters slipping from four years ago. But this JCC crowd was largely —and loudly — pro-Obama.

There were hearty chuckles when, after Romney talked about the tumult in the Middle East, Obama rejoined that “a few weeks ago, you said our biggest geopolitical threat was Russia.” Several people oohed when the president said that when he visited Israel, “I didn’t take donors. I didn’t do fundraisers.”

“Romney is full of hot air,” said Pittsburgh viewer Naomi Frankel. “He keeps saying the same thing over and over, but with different sentence structure.”

Attorney Mark Frank, 63, was glad to see a more assertive Obama show up for this final debate. He especially enjoyed when the president responded to Romney’s comment about the size of the Navy with a quip about how “we don’t use horses or bayonets anymore, either.”

“I get the feeling the governor was suffering from a bit of the malaise the president felt in the first debate,” he said. “[Obama] just seems to be more on target.”

Party activists on both sides, however,  were quick to defend their candidate’s performance.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Romney demonstrated “his knowledge of foreign policy issues and his understanding of the nature of our allies and foes on the global stage [and] made it clear that in order for the U.S. to fulfill its role in the world, we must first be strong — economically, militarily and diplomatically.”

“[Obama’s] policies over the last four years have weakened us,” Brooks added in a statement. “Romney’s plans to grow the economy and get people back to work will strengthen America at home and in the eyes of the world.”

National Jewish Democratic Council President David A. Harris said Obama’s “statements of unequivocal support for Israel” during the debate were “just the latest demonstration of this president’s rock-solid commitment to the Jewish state and its security.”

“For pro-Israel voters, only one candidate in this race has a proven record when it comes to standing up for Israel’s security, and those voters were reminded of that tonight,” Harris said in a statement. “President Obama showed — in this exchange, and throughout the evening —why and how he has stewarded the U.S.-Israel relationship and the effort to halt Iran so powerfully and with maturity, seriousness and confidence over the past four years.”

As expected, Iran’s nuclear ambitions figured largely in the debate. Romney challenged the effectiveness of Obama’s Iran policy, saying his perceived weakness has strengthened the ayatollahs’ resolve.

“They have looked at this administration and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength,” Romney said. “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”

Obama, meanwhile, accused Romney of rushing to conclude that a military strike was necessary. “The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that, during the course of this campaign, he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action,” Obama said. “I think that would be a mistake, because when I send young men and women into harm’s way, I always understand that is the last resort, not the first resort.”

The candidates did not offer sharply contrasting policies to address the Iranian challenge. They agreed on the need for tough economic pressure — and for safeguarding Israel.

“If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily,” Romney said.

Obama said, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.”

The president later called Israel “a true friend and our greatest ally in the region,” and said Israel and the U.S. maintain “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat.”

Obama went on to say that a nuclear Iran would nota national security threat to the U.S. He stressed he would not let Iran obtain a nuclear bomb so long as he is president and would not allow Iran to “perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.”

AP writer Jesse Washington in Pittsburgh, jns.org and j. staff contributed to this report.