Final debate brings role reversal

President Obama and Mitt Romney reversed roles in Monday evening’s third and final presidential debate. The incumbent fought with a challenger's aggression while the GOP nominee mostly avoided heated disagreement, except to make jabs on the economy.

But if Obama looked to lay Romney out on the canvas and the Republican preferred a rope-a-dope strategy, neither candidate was wholly successful. On balance, it was a stronger night for the president than his rival, but there was scant evidence of a race-changing moment.

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Polls in the immediate aftermath gave the edge to Obama, albeit by wildly divergent margins. A CNN poll anointed the president the victor by eight points (48-40 percent); a swing-state survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found an 11-point advantage (53-42 percent); and a CBS News poll indicated a blowout win for the president among undecided voters by a full 30 points (53-23 percent).

Those results seemed to reward Obama for being the markedly more aggressive man. The difference was reflected not just in a succession of pointed one-liners but in his body language. He stared intently at Romney throughout the debate and, more than once, referred to the GOP nominee’s positions as having been “all over the map.”

Romney remained for the most part unflustered. He also came on much stronger when given the opportunity to pivot to domestic matters from the foreign policy issues that were the debate’s nominal focus.

Linking global challenges to the ongoing economic travails, he insisted at one point that “America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home.”

But Romney conspicuously veered away from making an issue out of the administration’s response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.

At other times, such as when the conversation turned to Afghanistan, real differences between the challenger’s policy and that of the incumbent were hard to discern.

The night’s most memorable line came in the form of an Obama counter-punch.

When Romney criticized a reduction in the number of ships in the U.S. Navy, saying that the total was now smaller than it was about a century ago, Obama shot back: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers.”

The reference to “horses and bayonets” delighted liberals and swiftly took flight on social media, soon ranking high among Twitter’s trending topics. 

Republicans countered that Obama’s verbal aggressiveness should be viewed as a sign of near-desperation. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), whose battleground state is home to many defense jobs, released a statement calling Obama’s remark “dismissive” and “flippant.”

According to conservatives’ interpretation, the president’s barbs were fueled by a need to change the momentum of a race that has begun to look precarious for him. Obama supporters, however, saw only assertiveness.

Assailing Romney for naming Russia as the primary “geopolitical” threat to the United States in a CNN interview in March, Obama mocked: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

The president also called the assertion that he had undertaken an “apology tour” to foreign nations “probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign.”

Monday evening’s encounter brought an end to the most compelling series of presidential debates in many years. Romney won the first exchange in Denver on Oct. 3 handsomely, putting himself back into serious contention after a month in the doldrums. The president was widely judged to have won the second, town-hall-style encounter on Long Island, N.Y. on Oct. 16, though by a less emphatic margin.

Now the candidates and their surrogates will begin a two-week sprint to Election Day in an effective dead heat.

Before the debate on Monday, the Real Clear Politics nationwide polling average had Romney leading by less than 1percentage point. A new Washington Post/ABC Poll, also released Monday afternoon, put Obama up by one point, 49-48 percent, among likely voters.

Obama will hold a rally in Florida Tuesday morning before joining Vice President Biden in Ohio, arguably the most important swing state of all this cycle. Romney will hold rallies in Nevada and Colorado with his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Romney goes to Iowa on Wednesday, while the president commences a breakneck two-day tour that includes stops in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Ohio — as well as a trip home to Chicago, during which he will become the first president in history to avail of in-person early voting.

Partisans from both sides found enough to satisfy them in Monday’s encounter. But independent observers saw no runaway winner.

David Lanoue, a Columbus State University professor who is an expert on presidential debates, acknowledged that “Obama got in the best zingers” and “was the aggressor from the outset.”

But, he added: “Romney probably gained the most by sounding well informed and thoughtful on international relations. He looked like a plausible commander in chief, and that was his main challenge.”