WASHINGTON – At Monday night’s third and final presidential debate, US President Barack Obama began his closing statement by resurrecting his predecessor, George W. Bush, to make the case for himself over his opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

“Over the last four years, we’ve made real progress digging our way out of policies that gave us two prolonged wars, record deficits, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said.

“Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies: a foreign policy that’s wrong and reckless; economic policies that won’t create jobs, won’t reduce our deficit,” he said. It might have been a different decade when Bush was in office, but his legacy for the country – and more relevantly, the Republican party – still looms large.

And it’s a major issue for many undecided voters who are dissatisfied with Obama and might be willing to give Romney a look, but are concerned he would be another version of Bush. A question from audience member Susan Katz in the second debate summed up the concern.

“I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration,” she said, addressing Romney. “Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election.

What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush?” Though Obama didn’t bring up Bush until the end of Monday’s debate, the only one to focus on foreign policy, it was Mitt Romney’s mission from the beginning to communicate that his presidency would not mimic George W. Bush’s, including policies in the Middle East that have become unpopular.

Sure, Romney also had to pass a leadership threshold to convince voters that he could be trusted on matters of national security.

(The results of a flash CNN poll suggest he did. Sixty percent of those interviewed immediately after watching the debate said he could handle the responsibility of being commander- in-chief, the same number that found him to be a credible leader. CNN noted the sample slightly over-represented Republicans when it announced the findings.) But that wasn’t the only hurdle, which is why Romney focused so much on making remarks sounding moderate, or even dovish.

“By doing a very surprising thing, by coming at Obama occasionally from his left, to say we’re not going to kill our way out of this, he avoided that trap of being the warmonger,” CNN political analyst David Gergen said following the debate. “I think he did that very successfully, and I think he came across as a responsible sounding commander- in-chief.” Gergen was referring to Romney’s comment commending Obama for ridding the world of Osama bin Laden, but arguing that wasn’t sufficient to end the threat of Islamic terror.

“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney said. “We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical, violent extremism.”

Romney’s own final statement emphasized the importance of keeping the peace: “I want to see growing peace in this country.

It’s our objective. We have an opportunity to have real leadership. America is going to have that kind of leadership and continue to promote principles of peace.” And on policy grounds he avoided striking a strident note.

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When moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS asked what he would do if the situation on the ground raised questions about the plan to withdraw US soldiers from Afghanistan, Romney said the US would “make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.” That was a more definitive stance in favor of a timed withdrawal than he has taken in the past.

On Syria, Romney ruled out military involvement; on ending Islamic extremism, he talked about the findings of a UN report calling for more economic development, gender equality and civil society.

And then there was Iran, where Romney stressed, “Of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only – only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”

He described the US mission in Iran as one to dissuade the country “through peaceful and diplomatic means” from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Before any military action would come more sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Romney’s comments might not have pleased his base, or reassured an Israeli public concerned that the world isn’t doing enough to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon, but they probably did help dispel some of the Bush aura.

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