The attacks, the interruptions and the tension are over, at least when it comes to the debate floor. Now, strategists from both parties are busy putting together their arguments about what actually happened Tuesday night, and each campaign naturally claims a victory.
An instant scientific poll conducted by CNN among debate viewers concluded President Obama won the debate according to 48 percent of those polled, compared to 40 percent who thought Romney had won. CBS conducted a similar poll amongst only undecided voters and found much more lopsided results; Obama was the winner, 53 percent to 23 percent.
The third and final presidential debate revolved around foreign policy, and each candidate made a pivot to the center, says Michael Fullilove of The Christian Science Monitor. While Governor Romney attempted to shed his reputation as a bull in a china shop concerning foreign policy, President Obama looked to project “a clear willingness to use force, sometimes unilaterally, to protect US security and interests,” a change from the image some have of the President as someone who leads from behind. Fullilove also said the abundance of agreement on foreign policy is an underlying reality behind the rhetoric: “In truth … the foreign-policy similarities between the two men are more striking than the differences. Obama is not as left-wing and dovish as many believe, and Romney is not as right-wing and hawkish as he would have us believe.”
One of the President’s sharpest and best moments of the debate was when he criticized the Governor for calling for more Naval ships, which Romney said were at their lowest level since 1917. “You mention the Navy, and the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said.
Verne Gray of Newsday said the zinger will prove to be memorable, and the hallmark of successful presidential debate performances over the past century. “Teddy Roosevelt would’ve immensely enjoyed this moment — but demanded more battleships and bayonets nonetheless,” he said. “If Obama wins the election, he has a lot of horses, bayonets and battleships to thank.”
Meanwhile, Romney took a conservative approach, debating like the front runner, said Alexander Burns of Politico.
“Romney, for his part, took a cooler approach to the debate that reflected his enhanced stature in a race that has tightened since the first debate in Denver at the start of October,” Burns wrote. “With foreign policy as one of Obama’s few remaining national strengths, Romney delivered familiar criticisms in a level tone, rather than taking big risks with attacks aimed at the jugular.”
Some critics have derided the strategy as the biggest risk of all, but only subsequent polls in the coming days will be able to totally flesh out the consequences of such a move.
The staff at the Boston Globe disagreed with such critics in their instant analysis. “Obama may be declared the winner of this debate in instant polls, but Romney may have accomplished his seemingly modest goal. Romney’s game plan clearly was to reassure voters concerned about his bellicose campaign rhetoric that he would be a steady hand,” the analysis said.
Ron Elving’s instant analysis from NPR suggested that each voter base may have swallowed a few ice cubes during the debate, during which both candidates tried to appeal to the general electorate:
“In the first debate, Obama may have won the likability contest but booted the rest of the test. In the final debate, he could not risk having this happen again. That led to the role reversal that had nearly as many people shaking their heads: the president playing the restless attacker, finding fault with his rival even when the two agreed on policy basics while Romney smiled a lot and went out of his way to be level-headed, embracing agreement with the president wherever possible.
“This retracting of the Romney horns was too obvious to be spontaneous. That is not the way the GOP nominee and his team operate. They have decided that recent polls in their favor are now the defining factor in the contest. So their tactics for the third debate went from ‘go after him’ to ‘don’t blow it.'”
This dramatic shift in Romney’s challenge style and Obama’s response tactics is just the latest of a series of strange twists that have made this election almost impossible to forecast.