In final debate, both candidates achieve their goals

The president squeaked out a win during Monday’s debate, but was it enough to counter Gov. Romney’s big victory in their first meeting?

President Obama and Gov. Romney clearly came into tonight’s debate with different strategies. Romney, who has surged in the polls since the first debate, seemingly came in with two goals: to look like a plausible commander-in-chief, and to appear reasonable and rational in his approach to foreign policy. He accomplished both.

The president’s goal was equally evident. Since he’s been sinking in both national and swing state polls, his goal was to go on the offensive and come across as a strong and decisive leader. He, too, achieved his goal.

There were a few moments that will likely be replayed numerous times on newscasts over the next few days. The first was President Obama’s line about “horses and bayonets.”

That wasn’t the only zinger Obama came prepared with tonight. Among others, he also 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.”

“When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

“You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that shifted jobs overseas.”

“There have been times, governor, frankly, where during the course of this campaign, it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did but you’d say ’em louder, and somehow that would make a difference.”

Romney also got off some good lines, including one in which he countered President Obama’s contention that his foreign policy is straight out of the 1980s because he labeled Russia the No. 1 international threat. Romney’s retort included a sly dig at something President Obama was caught saying on an open mic to Russian President Medvedev earlier this year (video of Obama gaffe: see No. 4).

But all in all, Romney’s plan tonight was not to execute a series of good lines. It was to appear thoughtful, sober, and serious—which he largely accomplished.

Gov. Romney also did a nice job tonight of moving the conversation away from foreign policy and back to the domestic economy. This may have been a foreign policy debate, but uncommitted voters in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Colorado are likely more interested in the economy. President Obama also discussed the economy, but Romney spent more time on it.

I always take note of the body language at the beginning of the debate versus the body language later in the debate. President Obama’s body language didn’t change—he appeared supremely confident and relaxed the entire time. Gov. Romney’s, on the other hand, got tighter and more strained as the debate continued.

I believe Romney made a mistake by not responding to a few of Obama’s attacks, including the one about horses and bayonets and another about the difference between his and Romney’s trips to Israel (below).

By not responding, Romney allowed the attacks to sit unanswered–giving them additional credibility–since many viewers will conclude that Romney would have countered them if they weren’t true.

Final analysis

Ultimately, President Obama emerged victorious in Monday’s debate; however, Gov. Romney crushed him in the first debate and arguably lost to the president in the second debate. The question is whether Obama’s two narrow debate victories are enough to compensate for the brutal blow in the first one.

The first debate mattered the most and made an indelible impression. I judged President Obama the winner of the final two debates, albeit by narrower margins. But Romney’s gains in the polls after the first debate aren’t likely to reverse back to pre-debate levels.

As a result, judged in the aggregate, the Romney-Ryan ticket benefitted more than the Obama-Biden ticket from the combination of all four debates.

Monday’s debate grades: President Obama: A, Governor Romney: B

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