In a technical scoring of debating points, President Obama bested Mitt Romney in their third showdown. Obama was crisp, aggressive and articulate in making his case. He was always leaning forward in his chair, ready to pounce.
Romney started slowly, and seemed prepared to let Obama set the tone. It was a mistake that allowed the president to dominate the first half of the 90-minute debate.
Romney repeatedly found his voice in the second half, and was at his best on Iran. He called it the greatest threat to America’s national security, something the president failed to do. And he accused Obama of going on an “apology tour” and of putting daylight between the US and Israel, charges that stung the president, and his anger showed.
But the most important measure of a night devoted to foreign policy is whether it changed the arc of the campaign, which has been strongly moving in Romney’s direction. The economy is still the big banana, and Romney is winning on that issue.
To make up ground, then, Obama would have to pick up undecided voters, most of whom are moderate and independent, on the basis of his international record. It’s hard to see how he did that last night in any significant way.
That’s because Romney didn’t commit any blunders, and was forceful in sketching a big picture of Obama’s failure. So Obama’s victory, if that is how it is seen, might have little meaning where it matters most.
Part of the reason is that Romney had such a low hurdle to clear. Having flipped the script of the campaign with this masterful performance in the first debate, and more than held his own in the second, he needed to simply show that, on foreign policy, he was a sober, credible alternative to the incumbent.
He did, and thus the challenger passed the audition to be commander-in-chief. He did it by striking a delicate balance between two requirements that are potentially in conflict.
First, Americans, especially women, had to feel he would keep their families safe from terrorism. Second, he also had to show that he was not a warmonger.
In a nation that is proud of its superpower status, and yet also war weary, it was no easy needle to thread. But Romney pulled it off by stressing that he wanted peace above all, and that the way to achieve it is through strength, economically and militarily. He often veered off to talk about creating jobs.
Yet Obama largely did what he had to do, too: Seize the mantle as a man of experience on the world stage. He showed no vulnerability or doubt, despite a record that is full of holes.
His repeated references to himself as commander-in-chief were heavy-handed, and a bit too obvious because it’s not likely there are voters who don’t already know he’s president.
But he clearly wanted to emphasis his experience over the challenger’s lack of it, something he did to a fault by mocking Romney at times, a bad habit that reveals the president’s arrogance and thin skin. And when his record was attacked, Obama almost always hit back with snide, personal attacks.
Obama’s fast start let him skate through the debacle in Libya, and by the time moderator Bob Schieffer had also led them through a discussion of Egypt and Syria, Romney had agreed with Obama so many times that he effectively let the president claim that his policies on those countries were the right ones.
Romney eventually pushed back, and summed up the last four years by saying that Iran is four years closer to the bomb and the Middle East is turning chaotic. He also added that our trade deficit with China is growing, North Korea is spreading nuclear materials and Russia has pulled out of a treaty to get rid of the old Soviet nukes.
With two weeks left, both men are still standing and the race remains a nailbiter. Outside events could still play a role, but it is more likely that voters will have to decide on the basis of what they already know about these two rivals.
One thing is certain: We’ll all be happy to see it end.
This column originally appeared in the New York Post. For more, click here.