Mitt Romney played to run out the clock. Sensing that momentum was on his side, Romney’s task was to reassure skeptical viewers — especially women — that he was not a warmonger. Obama played like the one anxious to score, jabbing Romney repeatedly all night long, rarely speaking without sending a shot across the table.
“For the most part, the president’s tone fit the gravity of the issues under discussion,” wrote Michelle Cottle at the Daily Beast. “But even when he flirted with humor, it was angry humor. 'The 1980s are calling, asking for their foreign policy back.' 'You say we have fewer ships than 1916. We also have fewer horses and bayonets.' Snap.”
The paradox was captured by Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast, who headlined, “Obama slams A Passive Mitt Romney as Reckless on Foreign Policy.”
“This was not the Mitt Romney of the first or second debate,” Kurtz wrote, “Sounding like a political scientist at times, he had clearly made a calculation that playing it safe and demonstrating world knowledge were sufficient in a race in which many polls are trending his way. He steered clear of anything that might be interpreted as an aggressive call to action.”
“The President is determined to pick a fight tonight,” Tweeted NBC’s David Gregory, “Romney determined to avoid it. What does that say about where each camp sees the race?”
The results, based on flash polls, were somewhat mixed, but there were serious doubts about whether anything here would change the trajectory of the campaign.
CNN’s flash poll gave the nod to Obama, 48 percent to 40. But as David Gergen observed on CNN, to focus on the “winner” polls off point. “I think Romney passed the commander-in-chief test, and people would be fairly comfortable with him in the oval office.”
The CNN poll rather proved Gergen’s point: Can the candidate handle the job of commander in chief? 63 percent said yes to Obama, and 60 percent yes to Romney. Given that Obama already holds the office, this might seem a vindication of Romney’s caution.
“Who did the debate make you more likely to vote for?” CNN asked. Obama 24 percent, Romney 25, and neither 50.
A Public Policy Polling survey after the debate summed up its likely minimal effects. Thirty-seven percent were more likely to vote for Obama after the debate, 31 percent less likely. Thirty-eight were more likely to vote for Romney, 35 percent less likely.
NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted, “Romney seemed so focus on being 'acceptable' that he didn't see the need to either respond to criticism or draw many distinctions. Too safe?"
One of the few unequivocal voices pushing a Romney win was the normally skeptical Charles Krauthammer at Fox News: “I think it's unequivocal: Romney won, not just tactically but strategically.”
Some issues that never came up: The EU credit crisis and the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
It was clearthat no one there really wanted to discuss foreign policy. At every opportunity, both candidates veered off to domestic issues. And the moderator let them run. Just about any issue quickly became an excuse to revisit domestic policy.
The oddest moment for Obama may have been when he was making a point about Tunisia. He said, "The nation: me," and then paused. The phrase echoed in the silence oddly for a moment -- sounding as if he had said "l'etat c'est moi" -- he continued.
Romney's oddest moment came toward the end, when he protested a bit too much on education, passionately insisting, "I love teachers!" I think we can all agree that we all love teachers, Schieffer cut in.
Probably the most interesting dispute in the debate came when the president got one of his many digs in at Romney, alleging that he advocated destroying the auto industry through bankruptcy.
As Bob Shieffer began to try to move on, Romney cut in and insisted on addressing the question. Romney then said that he never had advocated that the auto industry be abandoned, but rather that he had suggested an ordered bankruptcy that would allow GM and Chrysler to properly shave their debts and regain the footing.
And, Romney insisted, in his New York Times editorial, he had argued that the government should back the loans required to get the companies moving again. This resulted in some back and forth, with the president insisting that Romney was wrong and appealing to the transcript again, as he had successfully with Candy Crowley last week.
In fact, the fact checking on this one was not difficult at all. In the New York Times piece Romney wrote, “A managed bankruptcy may be the only path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs. It would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs. The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.”
The exchange was a belated but welcome opportunity for Romney, who had spent months trying to point out that he had had advocated auto industry bankruptcy as restructuring, not as disillusionment.
Another fact check moment occurred when Romney insisted that the president had sought to keep troops in Iraq, and that the negotiations to arrange that had collapsed. The president, in suggesting that Romney was wrong, artfully framed his position as having been that he did not want to see 10,000 troops stay in Iraq.
After the debate, CNN quickly fact checked it and found that the administration had sought a “status of forces agreement,” which would have left between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at email@example.com.