03:14 - Source: CNN
Exclusive: Inside Romney debate strategy

Story highlights

Adviser says Romney won't match up point-for-point with Obama's foreign policy

Romney will try to make his CEO resume turning around "messy situations" relevant

GOP candidate will also try to turn the discussion to the economy

One goal will be to better communicate criticism of handling of Benghazi attack

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Washington CNN —  

Mitt Romney is planning to shed the scrappy in-your-face debate strategy from last week’s town hall and replace it Monday night with a calmer demeanor, someone voters can imagine as commander in chief, CNN has learned.

“I don’t think this is necessarily a debate where you’re going to see point-for-point scoring,” Romney adviser Dan Senor said.

Senor is part of a small circle of Romney advisers preparing him for Monday’s third of three debates, which is focused on foreign policy. He ducked out of the secretive sessions in New York late last week to talk to CNN in the only interview he did during the preparations.

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“I think this is a real opportunity for Gov. Romney to present some of his ideas, present his critique of the president’s foreign policy and where we are in the world,” Senor said.

“It’s not so much point-for-point in terms of how he would handle this tactical issue versus how the president has handled that tactical issue,” he said.

Romney is a former governor with no foreign policy experience. Certainly, governors of both parties, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have won the White House before spending much time on the world stage. Still, challengers tend to be at a disadvantage on this issue during debates with a sitting commander in chief.

To try to overcome that, Senor said, Romney plans to make his resume as a CEO relevant, because he has a history of turning around “messy situations” and “complicated organizations.”

“In Gov. Romney, you have someone who has been a chief executive of a state, who has dealt with turning around complicated issues throughout his career, both in the U.S. and around the world, whether it was failed companies, whether it was a failed U.S. Olympics in Salt Lake City. So this is someone who’s decisive, who has a strong world view,” Senor said.

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Romney will also try to turn foreign policy back to his wheelhouse and the issue voters say they care most about: the economy.

“I think it’s important for us to take a step back and recognize that what America does abroad is connected to what America does at home and vice versa,” Senor said. “I think you’re going to see Gov. Romney talking about that. It’s talking about how America’s ability to lead abroad and have a strong position abroad is right now limited, is inhibited by the terrible economic situation we’re in today at home. Our ability to support a strong defense budget is affected by our economy at home.

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“(President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad in Iran just said in recent days, ‘Why should I be worried about the Americans? Look at how much, how they’re saddled with debt’?” Senor said, in what appeared to be a possible line Romney has been practicing for the debate.

Like in any good debate prep, Romney is getting some responses ready for when the president tries to pummel him on foreign policy missteps, like when Romney traveled to Great Britain during this summer’s Olympics and infuriated the British by questioning their readiness for the games.

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Team Romney also expects the president to continue to slam him for releasing a much-criticized press release whacking the Obama administration’s response to unrest in the Middle East before knowing the severity of the situation: that the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others had been killed.

An urgent goal will be to better communicate criticism about Obama administration failures in the wake of the deadly attack in Benghazi. Republicans rallied around Romney after he challenged the president’s assertion in the last debate that he called the attack an “act of terror,” only to be proven wrong.

But privately, some Republicans think he watered down the larger point that conservatives had been pushing him to make: that the Obama administration’s explanations about the cause of last month’s Libya attack have been changing. Officials blamed it on a spontaneous protest even though there was early intelligence about it being a terror plot.

“These debates are very, as you know, live and interactive and can get heated on both sides, but the basic point, which he’s made before this debate, he’s made since the debate, he made the night of the debate, is there have been misleading statements coming out of the administration that are worrisome,” Senor said.

“The governor is still going to continue to ask those questions. They’re very legitimate questions,” he continued.

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Romney’s team knows he will not just be able to go after Obama on foreign policy; he will have to spell out his own worldview and how it differs from the president’s.

On some critical foreign policy issues, the two men are not that far apart. Romney said he would generally abide by the president’s plan to bring U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan in 2014.

When it comes to preventing a nuclear Iran, Romney’s rhetoric sounds more strident than the president’s, since he slams Obama for mixed messages on sanctions.

But when you look at the specifics, they’re relatively similar. Both believe in economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and keeping military options on the table.

On another complicated relationship – China – Romney insists he would do a better job than the president cracking down on unfair trade practices and currency manipulation.

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In the last debate, the president left Romney somewhat flatfooted by scolding him, saying, “Governor, you’re the last person who can talk about China.”

This time, Romney appears to be preparing a better response.

“Gov. Romney travels around the country, goes to places like Ohio, where he meets with companies that are being set back directly because of China’s unfair trade practices and its currency manipulation, and he’s a tough, no-nonsense, competent negotiator, who’s going to put an end to this. Period,” Senor said.

If you were moderating, what questions would you ask the candidates?