New York, 22 October 2012
It might have been enough to halt the momentum but not to turn the tide.
The final presidential debate, on foreign affairs, was the last face-off between the two men fighting for America’s top job.
It is a measure of how well Mitt Romney has done over the last few weeks that a debate which everyone – including Obama – thought the President would ace, was at times nail-bitingly close.
Close too in policy terms. It was sometimes hard to tell what the two men disagreed about.
Obama had the night’s best zingers. In response to the Republican contender’s criticism that America is militarily weaker than it was and that it has fewer Navy ships than in the past, Obama said, “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets”. He then dismissed Romney’s vision of military spending as being like a game of Battleships.
The sharpest exchanges of the evening came when Romney accused the president of weak leadership and said Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticising America.”
Obama dismissed the attack as the “biggest whopper” of the campaign.
The president sought to portray Romney as inexperienced in foreign affairs, as someone who would make “reckless” decisions and who was “all over the map”.
Referring to Romney’s initial support for the Iraq war, Obama looked his opponent in the eye and said, “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy—but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”
Romney did not hammer Obama over Libya, as he has been doing on the stump.
The Republican’s strategy seemed to be to look and sound presidential, which he did. But he had another trick up his sleeve. Changing the subject.
During the debate and again in his concluding remarks, Romney abandoned foreign policy altogether and started to speak about the economy, his campaign’s favourite subject but something this debate was not meant to cover.
The TV stations that were monitoring viewer reactions quickly clocked that viewers at home responded positively to those moments.
Obama also tried to relate the televised debate, which was held in Boca Raton, Florida, to domestic policy by repeatedly referring to the importance of “nation building at home.” It was a subtle point, effectively made, but it lacked the punch of Romney’s mini tutorial on how he would fix the economy.
So while Obama probably won the foreign affairs debate, Romney succeeded in changing the subject to his advantage and reaching out to the American people.
Ultimately, there were no knockout blows. The race continues.