The debate’s topic was foreign policy and it saw an unusual inversion of what might have been expected, with the incumbent taking up the cudgels and the challenger assuming a statesmanlike position. Mitt Romney frequently agreed with his opponent’s foreign policies, although they clashed more fiercely on China, the final subject of the final debate.
At one point, the challenger – who was seated next to Obama at a table opposite the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS – came out with this statement that sounds more like the response a sitting president might make:
“Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not how we deal with the challenges of the Middle East.”
In an instant editorial, the Wall Street Journal said:
About 45 minutes into Monday night’s Presidential debate on foreign policy, we found ourselves asking which of the two men on stage in Boca Raton was the incumbent and which was the challenger. President Obama kept attacking Mitt Romney for various things he had said or claimed he had said, while the Republican mostly tried to look fluent on the issues and steady enough to be Commander in Chief. Maybe Mr. Romney really is leading in the polls.
The paper said Mr Romney had not even mentioned the Obama administration’s perceived weak point – its handling of the death of the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in an attack by radicals in Benghazi on September 11. The Journal said his command of detail on global issues was impressive.
[The challenger] wasn’t rattled, and if anything looked cooler than a sometimes peevish Mr. Obama. The President scored more debating points, but he looked smaller doing it.
Immediate poll reaction gave the feisty president the decision: while 53 per cent of those asked by CBS said Mr Obama won the debate compared with 25 per cent awarding the laurel to Mr Romney, CNN‘s poll was more evenly split with the president gaining a 48-40 advantage. But in more detailed questions, viewers found it hard to differentiate between the two men on likeability, statesmanship or the ability to be commander-in-chief.
CNN’s political unit commented that the sample in its poll was in fact slightly more Republican-supporting than the electorate as a whole, so the result may be more pleasing to the Obama camp than the raw numbers show.
Unlike previous debates, there was a big gender gap, with women responding much more favorably to Obama’s performance and men giving a small advantage to Romney.
But the poll said Mr Obama’s aggression may have come at the expense of likeability, where the president has previously held a clear advantage, Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director said. Respondents scored the men in a dead heat on the subject based on their performance in Boca Raton.
The president was critical of Romney right out of the gate, saying a few minutes into the debate that “a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaeda. You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the cold war’s been over for 20 years.”
And a moment later, he slammed Romney, saying “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.”
In the Financial Times, Edward Luce commented:
Barack Obama didn’t look like he wanted to be elsewhere. Mitt Romney didn’t patronise women. Neither candidate lost his cool. And there were no big gaffes during the evening.
It would be a surprise, therefore, if the final debate in Boca Raton had any measurable impact on the election. The two went into the debate in a statistical dead heat. And they will probably emerge from it in roughly the same place.
But he also pointed out that the two candidates were really taking part in an election that is completely focused on the US economy and tried to get back to that turf as often as possible because “the foreign policy debate was never going to upend a close election centred on the economy”:
… neither the president nor Mr Romney appeared to be much interested in talking about foreign policy at all.
Whenever they got the chance, they segued to education, the economy, taxes and other domestic issues. If this was supposed to be about foreign policy, then it’s hard to imagine what another domestic debate would be about.
Al Jazeera said Mr Obama criticised Mr Romney on his proposals on the Middle East and “mocked his calls for more ships in the US military”.
Obama had a biting response during a discussion of the military’s budget and size, when Romney said he would increase the number of ships built by the US navy. He said the US should typically have 300 and only had 285, its smallest size since 1917.
“Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” said Obama.
Reviewing the debate on television, Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times:
Monday night’s debate provided an odd role reversal that made Mr. Romney seem on the defensive, particularly because he at times stuttered and sputtered in his haste to make his points. He pronounced foreign names and countries correctly, but also carefully, worried perhaps that a mispronunciation would sink his credibility. Usually, it is Mr. Obama who seems professorial and long-winded. There were long moments when Mr. Romney made the president sound succinct and sharp-edged.
But did all this make much difference to who Americans will support when they go to the polls on November 6? Not according to Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle who pointed out that the CNN poll showed that when asked “Who did the debate make you more likely to vote for?” 24 percent said Obama; 25 percent Romney, “the remainder basically neither.”