It was clear from the beginning of the debate that a shift has occurred in this presidential election. Gov. Romney is the frontrunner. On the debate last night, Romney seemed like the current president, rising above the petty politics of the challenger, Barack Obama.
Gov. Romney looked more knowledgeable, "moderate," and gracious. His strongest attack on the president came when he criticize him for what he called "an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America." He said:
[T]he reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations.
Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
But Romney pulled back significantly on his attacks of the president and focused on his own agenda. Frankly, he pulled back a bit too much for my taste. There were many missed opportunities, not the least of which was on the first topic of the night, Libya. The American people deserve better than what we have gotten from President Obama and his administration on Benghazi, yet Gov. Romney largely moved away from that.
President Obama, again behaving as the challenger, tried time and again to engage Gov. Romney in the type of "war of words" they engaged in during the second debate, but Gov. Romney was not taking the bait. Twice Romney said that personal attacks were not a foreign policy.
Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East, and take advantage of the opportunity there, and stem the tide of this violence.
The president looked strong in various parts in many ways, because Gov. Romney gave him credit for several things he has done. The president looked like he did not know what to do with that. He seemed ready for a fight and found himself throwing punches in the air.
The president's strongest showing, of course, came when he talked about catching Osama bin Laden and his work against Al Qaeda. He said:
You know, after we killed bin Laden, I was at ground zero for a memorial and talked to a young women who was four years old when 9/11 happened. And the last conversation she had with her father was him calling from the twin towers, saying "Peyton (ph), I love you and I will always watch over you." And for the next decade, she was haunted by that conversation. And she said to me, "You know, by finally getting bin Laden, that brought some closure to me."
But in other parts the president tried again to paint Romney as an extremist, to no avail. As in other debates, he said a few times that "everything" Romney said was not true. Every time he uses that line, he undermines his own credibility, because people can see he is overstating the case at best.
That was actually his response to Gov. Romney's criticism of the president's "apology tour." "Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing," he said. But the claim doesn't really fit, does it? President Obama may disagree with Gov. Romney's assessment, but to say that nothing he said is true seems petty and undermines his subsequent statements.
Overall the president looked strong in this debate, although a bit behind on the presidential race. He protected his record and promised to continue building on the same policies that he argued have been successful.
Gov. Romney does not believe those policies have been successful. He argued we appear weak to the international community and are in desperate need of leadership.
The same role reversal theme continued in closing statements. The president went after Romney and again stressed that those at the top need to do more in the economy:
Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies, a foreign policy that's wrong and reckless, economic policies that won't create jobs, won't reduce our deficit, but will make sure that folks at the very top don't have to play by the same rules that you do. ...
Yes, I want to reduce our deficit by cutting spending that we don't need but also by asking the wealthy to do a little bit more so that we can invest in things like research and technology that are the key to a 21st century economy.
Gov. Romney, on the other hand talked about leadership and bi-partisanship, highlighting the polarizing nature of the president's policies:
America's going to come back, and for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back, and will work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that.
This nation is the hope of the earth. We've been blessed by having a nation that's free and prosperous, thanks to the contributions of the greatest generation. They've held a torch for the world to see - the torch of freedom and hope and opportunity. Now, it's our turn to take that torch. I'm convinced we'll do it.
We need strong leadership. I'd like to be that leader with your support. I'll work with you. I'll lead you in an open and honest way, and I ask for your vote. I'd like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation and to make sure that we all together remain America as the hope of the earth.
Moderator Bob Schieffer did the best job of all the moderators in the three debates. Final time President Obama, 42:11 and Gov. Romney, 41:30.