Presidential Debate: Neocons Laud Romney's Performance

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Mitt Romney sounded downright dovish Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla., telling about 54 million TV viewers that "Our purpose is to make sure the world is more … peaceful. We want a peaceful planet."

But that didn't stop Romney's more hawkish supporters from lauding his performance in the last of three presidential debates, whose focus was foreign policy.

Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the neoconservative group Project for a New American Century, posted this praise for Romney on the magazine's website: "Mitt Romney is more than holding his own with Barack Obama tonight. Only two other challengers have done as well debating foreign policy with an incumbent president. … Romney is now on track to becoming the third challenger to win in the last 32 years - and the first in 80 years to defeat an incumbent who didn't have a primary challenge. Tonight, Romney seems as fully capable as -probably more capable as - Barack Obama of being the next president. He probably will be."

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, criticized Romney in June 2011 after the candidate said troops should come home from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Pletka then told Politico that Romney had "proven himself a little bit of a weathervane," accusing him of "attempting to appease Ron Paul's constituents."

But Pletka offered more praise after the debate, albeit praise more measured than Kristol's, suggesting that fellow conservatives have grown more comfortable with Romney on Afghanistan.

"The key is to be guided in our strategy by the fight in Afghanistan, not the fight in Iowa. That's the difference between the two candidates," Pletka said when asked about their stated agreement on a 2014 withdrawal timeline.

"I don't think that was clear last year when he spoke. That was why he got jumped on," Pletka said. "I think he is saying the same thing now, but I think we have a finer understanding of what he meant, that is, more of a reliance on the commanders on the ground."

Part of that "refined understanding" seems to be an acceptance that the 2014 deadline is difficult to undo. "It wouldn't have done an enormous amount of good to say he wants to rush in and renegotiate it," Pletka said. "Here's an issue where there's an accusation that the president did the wrong thing, but the ability to turn it off is fairly limited."

Pletka added a note of caution: "I think conservatives have rallied around the GOP candidate. Does that mean that then if he's elected he gets a pass? Not a chance."