Foreign policy was the theme of the third and final debate of the 2012 presidential cycle. With all the theatrical combat of the previous debate still fresh in voters' minds, one might think this final tête-à-tête would escalate and go nuclear.
The injuries were piling up. Two debates down, two moderators wounded -- Jim Lehrer, scoffed by some for not reining in the candidates; others scorned Candy Crowley for over-stepping her responsibilities. Given the mission at hand, veteran newsman Bob Schieffer of CBS was stepping into a partisan battlefield that could easily harm his cred.
The threat of rhetorical mushroom clouds soon gave way to unexpected agreement on diplomatic solutions as Gov. Mitt Romney shifted gears on his international perspective. Appearing hawkish and aggressive in the previous contests, tonight the governor's tone changed to favor diplomacy over destruction.
Both Schieffer and President Barack Obama would survive the night relatively unscathed. Those partisans looking for political bombs would be left in shock at the lack of policy distinctions, and awed at the Kumbaya moments between the two candidates.
There was some heated debate though... on who loves Israel the most and would make a better ally, and who would out-diplomat whom in Syria.
Both candidates projected what their camps prepared them for: Obama, strength, polish, and that sharp edge that was lacking in debate one; Romney, demonstrating his global awareness with a blatantly moderate flare to counterpoint the bully criticisms that were pinned on him in the prior debate just last week.
The shrinking pool of undecided voters were most definitely being courted.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney traded criticisms with each other, but few really landed. Both candidates were over-coached and over-rehearsed, leaving this viewer wishing it was already over so he could watch NLCS Game 7. There were more fireworks going off in the deluge in San Francisco at AT&T Park after that game than there were at Lynn University in Boca Raton during this debate. Congrats to the Giants on their epic back-to-the-wall win. But I digress. There have been no epic back-to-the-wall winners in this series of debates.
This night, President Obama was the first to go on the offensive, jabbing at Romney flip-flops on policy position. The first to attack in verbal sparing of this kind is usually behind, and Obama took little pause before initiating his offensive. But his best-rehearsed line, mocking Romney's foreign policy as outdated and scattered across decades past, landed like a stale zinger.
Romney's criticisms lacked punch also. On one hand, Romney accused Obama of an international policy that's unraveling before our eyes and weakening America, but then he would turn around and commend the President on measures and actions taken overseas. It was hardly a convincing argument.
The only shot landed in this foreign relations debate was a retort that hit Romney square in the navy. As the governor criticized the President for the number of sequestration cuts in military spending, referring to ship numbers now being as low as they were before 1917, Obama pivoted. "We also have fewer horses and bayonets too..." the president mocked, noting that our technology has continually evolved over the century to aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Later in the debate he continued on that course, also noting militarization of space technology.
This raises a broader point and clarifies the differences between candidates. Barack Obama because of his role as president is intimately aware of military tech and how best to transform and modernize our military through regular council with the Joint Chiefs. Mitt Romney has a more conventional approach to military intervention that might be out of touch with present capabilities.
Otherwise this debate was a rehash of previous topics from debates one and two. The true campaign distinctions on taxation and job creation, the debt, balancing a budget, and trade negotiations came to the fore again.
So when it comes down to it, we as voters are left with a shrinking set of distinctions between the two major candidates for office. President Obama has a four-year record to run against, while Mitt Romney brushes broad strokes leaving most of the details to fill in after the vote.
President Barack Obama may have edged Mitt Romney in this final debate. He showed more command of the facts as one would expect of the current president who is briefed daily. Mitt Romney made a strong showing but he played it safe. Will anyone who's been playing along since the primary debates believe the new Romney shift to the center?
In two weeks we'll tally it all up and see.
So exercise your right to vote America, or it'll get flabby.