Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate, as seen during a viewing at a San Francisco theater. Credit: Steve Rhodes/Flickr
Here is my right-after asssessment of Monday night's final Barack Obama-Mitt Romney televised debate of the campaign. As always, it is written without waiting for the TV talking-head and partisan spin.
The outcome: I expected President Obama, as a sitting president dealing daily with foreign affairs, to have a slight edge in the debate. He did. Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, on the other hand, passed quite well the "commander in chief" test. He showed a command of knowledge on all subjects discussed and made no major blunders.
We'll have to see if the debate itself moves national and key-state polling data over the next few days. Going in, the candidates' poll standings were quite close, with Romney appearing to have some momentum. I suspect that momentum was slowed somewhat Monday night and that the two are again on truly equal footing among voters.
Style: Obama continued the aggressive, on-the-attack style that has characterized his and Vice President Biden's performances since the media consensus judged Romney the winner in the first debate of presidential candidates. He came close, early in the debate, to appearing Biden-like by interrupting Romney a couple times and by showing hostile body and facial language. But he settled down as the evening proceeded. Romney was poised and unruffled. In many ways, their approaches were the reverse of what one usually expects in such debates: The incumbent was more hungry and aggressive; the challenger was steady and disciplined.
Surprises: The two agreed surprisingly often on most issues. The disagreements were of degree. Romney avoided appearing a hawk or risker of war, which was his largest risk in the debate. Obama several times accused Romney of lying and of taking inconsistent positions. Romney did not respond directly, leaving viewers to decide whether Obama was right or wrong. I was surprised that Obama, on several occasions, shifted discussion to domestic economic issues. Those are the issues, this year, where Romney enjoys a slight edge whereas Obama benefits when the issue is anything else.
Both came well prepared and, in their presentations and closing statements, made the points they came to make. Both certainly energized their core voters. It will be a few days until we know whether either influenced undecided and independent voters.
There will be no more debates. Key battleground-state voters will be exposed over the next two weeks to almost unbearable tonnages of TV commercials, phone, online, and snail-mail messages from the two campaigns. Both campaigns will be going all out to energize their key constituencies and motivate them to vote. Washington, as a blue state certain to go for Obama, will not experience much of this.
A final footnote: Amid all the talk about debate winners and losers, and who did best one night or another, it is good to pause and consider that the debates are an exercise in democracy which we should value. As one who has helped candidates prepare for them, I can attest that the candidates themselves learn from their debate preparations and, in fact, evolve in their policy thinking as a result of same. The debates are good for the country and good for the candidates.