A Good Debate for Obama, but Can He Stop Romney?

The president comes out swinging and lands some blows. But with two weeks to go, Romney believes momentum is on his side.

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Reuters

BOCA RATON, Florida -- The most memorable line of the final presidential debate came when Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for the fact that the U.S. Navy has the least ships it's had since 1917, and Obama shot back: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets."

The line got a big laugh. It also epitomized the tenor of the night. Romney took a remarkably conciliatory tack, seeking to blunt the criticism that he has too often gone off recklessly half-cocked when it comes to foreign affairs. But Obama was there ready with the bayonet at every turn, refusing to let Romney move past his prior statements and portraying him at every turn as callow and rudderless.

Afterward, Obama's team was sure the president had landed blows and done significant damage to Romney's credibility. But Romney's camp seemed just as convinced that Obama's attacks indicated nothing more than desperation, and that Romney achieved his goal by looking the part.

The tone was set with the very first question. The moderator, Bob Schieffer, practically invited Romney to repeat his attacks on Obama over the September 11 Libya consulate attack. But Romney didn't take the bait. He congratulated the president on getting Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders; he brought up al Qaeda's incursions into "the northern part of Mali." "But we can't kill our way out of this mess," he said.

Romney's strategy was clear: to align himself with Obama's popular foreign-policy decisions, to seem diplomatic and fair-minded, to blunt the critique that he'd rush to war, and to showcase a detailed knowledge of world affairs.

But Obama was not going to let him get away with presenting a different face than he often has in the past. "Governor Romney, I'm glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after al Qaeda," he said, "but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East."

Romney, Obama noted, has previously called Russia, not al Qaeda, our biggest geopolitical threat. "The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years," he said.

The "all over the map" line was one Obama repeated over and over. There was another word he used repeatedly: "wrong." "I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy," he said, pausing to let the icy condescension register, "but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong."

Wrong to want to keep troops in Iraq. Wrong to be against nuclear treaties with Russia. Wrong on Afghanistan, on Bin Laden, on China, on Israel, on Gaddafi. Obama's strategy, like Romney's, was crystal clear: to disqualify his rival by refusing to let him accomplish the sort of transformation Romney pulled off in the first debate, to hold him to account for his past statements, and to use the president's stature as commander-in-chief to cast doubt on Romney's seriousness.

On the substance, Obama won the debate. "Governor Romney reminds me of Pinocchio," Obama foreign-policy adviser Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary, told me afterward. "He wants to be a real boy. He wants to talk strategy. But I don't think Governor Romney really lives in the 21st Century." (Danzig also rolled his eyes at the GOP's contention that Obama had dissed the Navy. Modern naval carriers, he said, are the equivalent of numerous turn-of-the-20th-century ships.)

But Romney's team was just as convinced that the Republican prevailed on style. "The only importance this debate had is it permits people to envision Governor Romney as commander in chief. That was his test," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. "The president showed up not defending America's position in the world but defending his deteriorated position in the race. I think President Obama came across as someone falling behind in the race."

The debates are over. There are two weeks until Election Day. More than anything, the last debate revealed where the candidates think they stand: Romney confident, convinced he has only to maintain his momentum to keep floating to the top of the polls; Obama fighting like an underdog to stop Romney's rise and knock him off his pedestal.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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