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Obama in command; Romney plays it safe

updated 9:22 PM EDT, Tue October 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Contributors weigh in on how the candidates did in the third presidential debate
  • Aaron Miller: Obama bested Romney on foreign policy, but economy looms as larger issue
  • Timothy Stanley: Debate a draw; Obama won on substance; Romney was presidential
  • Donna Brazile: Obama looked presidential; Romney seemed out of his depth

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama met his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on Monday night at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, for the third of three presidential debates. CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the evening:

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

Alex Castellanos: Romney shrewdly channeled Clinton

President Obama has squeezed a lot of juice from Bill Clinton. Last night, at the third and final 2012 Presidential Debate, it was Mitt Romney who took a lesson from the talented Arkansas politician.

At the Democratic Convention, Barack Obama borrowed a boatload of political capital from the still popular former-president. Clinton painted Obama as a centrist and reformer who was moving the country forward. He graciously overlooked Obama's record as a big-spender who had revived "the era of big government" that Clinton himself had ended. Last night, however, it was Romney who benefited from Clinton's experience.

I was once among the Republicans who misspent two years trying to stop Bill Clinton from winning re-election. We called Clinton a flip-flopping shape-shifter, opportunistically triangulating towards the center. We expected voters to be horrified that Clinton was "stealing Republican ideas." David Broder called Clinton "a master at such publicly justifiable thievery."

What Republicans faulted as Clinton's inconstancy, however, voters saw as pragmatism. They prized the politician who was responsive. They liked Clinton more when we pointed out he wasn't an ideological extremist but a flexible leader moving toward the middle.

Our attacks conveyed the opposite of our intended message. We were unknowingly telling voters, "You can trust Clinton to do what you want. He's not a radical He's listening to you."

Last night, I heard similar cries of frustration from the Obama camp. "Romney is agreeing with Obama too much." "Romney almost endorsed Obama."

Good luck with that, my Democratic friends. Now you are saying that the guy you've spent millions labeling a zealot and clone of George Bush is too practical, pragmatic and centrist?

Obama won the final debate on points but Romney grew, too. He passed the Commander in Chief test. We saw a credible replacement for this President.

The fundamentals remain unchanged: This country believes it is on the wrong track. It wants a new direction. Mitt Romney has become an acceptable alternative. Last night his strategy was to make change safe. He did.

The Mitt Romney I know is a severely conservative man whose principles are grounded in his faith and his family. That core is surrounded by a practical, pragmatic businessman who fixes things others can't.

Live by the Clinton, die by the Clinton.

Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast

Opinion: Romney endorses Obama's national security policies

John Avlon
John Avlon

John Avlon: Romney on the ropes

Obama won the third and final debate with a strong and decisive performance that left Romney on the ropes. But clear victories in the second and third debates won't entirely undo the damage the president did himself in the first debate, which reignited this race.

Romney's debate orders seem to have been "do no harm" -- and so he tried hard not to offend, embracing the Obama administration on issues ranging from the Afghanistan surge and 2014 withdrawal date to the success of the Iran sanctions despite months of dire saber-rattling rhetoric. At the same time, Romney seemed careful to distance himself from the Bush administration's unilateral approach, leaving neocons frustrated and searching for specifics. This was Romney as a multilateral internationalist, looking to the United Nations in search of peace and distancing himself from pre-emptive action.

The problem, of course, is that this version Romney is sharply at odds with the Romney we've seen running for president over the past five years. He's hoping that detail won't distract from his appeal. There is no logical connection between the before and after policies except Romney's consistent ambition and willingness to say whatever is necessary at any given juncture to achieve the presidency. He seemed confused at times trying to explain the contradictions.

Obama, on the other hand, showed up feisty and ready to fight, turning his attention to Romney and drawing quick and clear contrasts -- precisely the moves that were missing in the first devastating debate.

Obama was almost hawkish in comparison to Romney, who was busy trying to secure his internationalist bona fides. Foreign policy has been an unexpected area of success for the president, and he consistently showed his assuredness, chiding Romney for a lack of consistency that he said would send mixed signals to our allies and enemies alike.

Romney's repeated agreement with Obama strategies when pressed for specifics only added credibility to the claims. Specific solutions are not Mitt's metier -- especially when asked excellent questions by moderator Bob Schieffer, such as how he intended to pay for his stated $2 trillion increase in military spending (which would erase all the deficit reduction details he has proposed).

Both candidates constantly tried to veer off topic in an attempt to talk about the economy and domestic policy whenever possible.

Obama's obviously coached returns to a call for "nation-building at home" must poll particularly well. But the absence of any defenders of the Bush doctrine just four years after it ruled the world spoke to something like a consensus -- those policies did not leave the country longing for a return.

And Obama's record in winding down two polarizing wars and ratcheting up the pressure on al Qaeda with deadly surgical strikes that killed bin Laden and others has proven both less costly and more effective. He made that case in clear, compelling and unflinching terms in the third and final debate. At least in terms of belated agreement from Romney, it is a policy debate Obama seems to have won on substance.

John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team.

Aaron David Miller: Will Obama's greater command move needle?

The president slept through the first debate, and Mitt Romney creamed him; Obama bested Romney in the second; and in the third, the president demonstrated a much greater command of the material and the stage.

But it's not entirely clear it's going to matter. Forget the meat of foreign policy. Romney did two things that will help his case. He offered the prospect of safe change if he is elected and was presidential enough on foreign policy, an issue that had played to the president's strength.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Appearance: Unlike in the first and even second debates, where Romney seemed confident and forceful, he seemed ill at ease, indeed somewhat nervous and out of sorts. The split screen is a killer, and the expression on the governor's face was somewhere between queasy and retiring -- it didn't suggest confidence and authority.

Obama by contrast was comfortable, forceful and commanding, at times aggressive. Still, if Romney was trying to soften his image and convince independents that he wasn't going to conduct a martial foreign policy, his less aggressive, retiring, lower-key manner may have helped

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On the question of what Romney would have done differently than the president: This was potentially Romney's greatest source of strength and weakness. And it turned out to be the latter. Instead of identifying real areas of vulnerability, Romney failed to make the case that his policies on Syria, Iran, even Israel would be substantially different. Still, if the goal was to offer up moderate, centrist foreign policies to reassure independents, he may have scored a few points.

In the end, foreign policy doesn't matter: The chattering classes notwithstanding, this election will be decided not by Libya or Iran but by which candidate is perceived to be able to turn the economy around.

Obama won the debate hands down on substance, but it's not at all clear he won the politics. The next two weeks will tell.

Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

Five things we learned from the final debate

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis: Romney echoed Obama policies

Those who specialize in measuring a debate's impact on voters will look for clues about who gained the most from the latest debate. For those of us looking for the foreign policy views of the candidates, the Boca Raton joust confirmed what we suspected for many months. The similarities greatly outweigh the differences. On foreign affairs, the election is not a Gore-Bush, or a Bush-Kerry contest, in which American policies would have experienced significantly different outcomes after the election.

The two candidates agree on most of the major issues facing the country in the world's hot spots. This reflects the fact that the choices are difficult, and they will be for whoever is sworn in next January, and America's interests and priorities will not change significantly after the election.

The major contrast is not in the specifics but in the way the two portray each other and, potentially, the way each would walk on the world stage. Romney says Obama has made America appear weak. But once in office he will find the same obstacles to American power.

Romney agreed with Obama's decision to abandon former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and the candidates fought each other over which one is more supportive of Israel. On Iraq, Obama accused Romney of wanting to keep troops in Iraq, when, in fact, Obama also wanted to keep a residual force.

Obama got in some hashtag-worthy zingers, most notably when he mocked Romney's contention that the U.S. Navy has shrunk. The president shot back that "we also have fewer horses and bayonets. ... We have these things called aircraft carriers." Romney tried to get Obama on lack of "backbone," calling him out on his comment, caught on an open mic, that he would "have more flexibility" in dealing with Russia after the election.

It's no wonder the debate seemed to veer away from foreign policy, back to the familiar territory of economics, where the distinctions are sharp and the potential for harvesting more votes is greater.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

Opinion: Romney walked into 'bayonets' line

Shadi Hamid
Shadi Hamid

Shadi Hamid: Discussion of Middle East would leave Arabs confused

This debate, if nothing else, showed us that U.S. discourse on the Middle East has little relation to how Arabs see their own region. I joked on Twitter that if you had a split screen of randomly selected Arabs watching, they'd probably be beyond confusion. To begin with, Romney's foreign policy message crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions.

In his October 8 speech on the Middle East, he echoed the Bush "freedom agenda" in calling for a more proactive approach to democracy promotion. But his first response on the Arab Spring suggested an exclusively security-oriented approach, with a region reduced to violence, terrorism and "tumult." He cited the free election of an Islamist president in Egypt as an example of the "dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had."

Republicans and neoconservatives, to their credit, once prioritized democracy promotion. But the fact that Islamist parties tend to win free elections has rendered "neoconservatism" incoherent. It is simply impossible to support democracy, on one hand, and oppose the rise of Islamists on the other.

For his part, Obama was steady and in command for the entirety of the discussion. Perhaps this means he "won." However, no grand vision or fundamental rethinking of priorities and assumptions was offered. Of course, that's not necessarily what televised debates are for. But the almost unanimous bipartisan support for drone attacks -- with no mention of the cost in innocent lives or how they turn Arabs and Muslims against us -- is a sign of a constrained and shortsighted foreign policy discourse.

The discussions on Iran and Israel were predictable, with little of note being offered. There was no real discussion of how to make progress on Arab-Israeli peace, a long-term powder keg if there ever was one. Romney, meanwhile, attacked Obama for "apologizing" to the Muslim world. Obama vehemently denied this. In a different world, he would have said that there is, in principle, nothing wrong with apologizing, particularly if you have something to apologize for. In a different world, an admission of past failures -- and how to avoid them in the future -- would be a sign not of weakness but of strength. But that, for now at least, is not the world we live in.

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Politics: Campaign enters final stretch

Will Cain
Will Cain

Will Cain: Romney lost the debate, but won the debates

Unwilling to disagree from the left, unable to find meaningful disagreement to the right, Mitt Romney chose to agree with President Barack Obama on Monday night. In the process he lost the debate, but not the debates.

Eighty percent of the available criticism of Obama's foreign policy existed to the left of the president. Romney, though, was not going to question Obama over the due process rights of American citizens targeted for assassination, such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Romney was not going to call Libya an illegal war by pointing out the lack of congressional approval for military intervention.

Interestingly, though, Romney did not try to fit himself into the 15-20 percent of available space to the right of Obama either. He didn't question Obama about the administration's explanations for the attacks in Benghazi. He didn't criticize the numerous national security leaks from Stuxnet to kill lists.

Instead, Romney chose to position himself alongside Obama. He chose agreement. I'm sure this was a calculated move. Romney traded aggressiveness for likeability. Understanding that aggressively criticizing the commander-in-chief on foreign policy can appear can appear unseemly, Romney chose to rest on the points he scored in the first debate and bracket that performance with likability in the final debate.

As a result, he lost Monday night. But he was the clear winner of the debate season.

We'll see if that translates into being the winner of the election season.

Will Cain is an analyst for The Blaze and a CNN contributor.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Timothy Stanley: A debate draw, but Romney looked presidential

Nobody won Monday night's contest on points. In fact, but for a couple of confrontations over aircraft carriers and apology tours, it was rather a dull debate. Both candidates felt well-to-over-prepared, and they actually agreed on a great deal. Given that Obama has abandoned his anti-war stance of the 2008 primaries, and Romney seems desperate to dump the GOP's neoconservative image, they met in the middle on drone strikes, when to leave Afghanistan, whether or not to defend Israel in the event of a war, etc.

It left this viewer imagining what other, more philosophically colorful candidates would have said in their place. Ron Paul vs. Obama would have been a real debate, whereas Michele Bachmann might have laid out a foreign policy manifesto based on the Book of Revelation. As for Newt Gingrich ... the moon would be militarized by May 2013.

If on substance it was a draw, on style it was a Romney victory. Foreign policy debates aren't about specifics -- they're about appearing statesmanlike. Obama already has that in his pocket because he's president. So Monday evening was Romney's turn to appear cool, rational and likely to make the right decisions. And he did.

News: Does the final debate even matter?

By contrast, the president got a nasty case of the Bidens and smirked or twitched his way through many of Romney's answers. Everyone will be talking about the "horses and bayonets" moment in the morning because it was the most interesting point of the debate. But it wasn't the win that the president probably thought it was: Obama's slap-down came off on camera as patronizing and inappropriate. By contrast, Romney kept calm and looked like a president. In his closing statement, there was even a ghost of Reagan about him. Round three to the Republican.

Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile: With horses, bayonets and a record, Obama prevails

First, these debates need more women moderators, or men who learn from them. (Fact-checking should also be part of the resume.)

On all the substantive issues -- the Middle East, al Qaeda, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- Romney either agreed with the president (only louder), thus flipping from his "severely conservative" stage, or he repeated discredited bromides and platitudes.

Romney was -- and looked -- out of his element, sounding like he'd just crammed for a geography exam. Obama sounded -- presidential. He has the record, the command of foreign policy issues and a clear vision. And yes, the president got Osama bin Laden.

Poll: Obama scores narrow victory

In sports, every game has one or two turning points. In this debate there were three.

When Romney claimed the Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1916, Obama shot back, "We also have fewer horses and bayonets. ... The question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities."

"Horses and bayonets" may rival binders full of women on Twitter.

When Romney brought up the trade imbalance and jobs being shipped overseas, Obama responded, "Well, Gov. Romney's right, you are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas."

And when Romney brought up the "dog-whistle" apology tour nonsense, saying the president skipped Israel in his visit to the Middle East, Obama responded: "When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't attend fund-raisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself (of) the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."

These weren't just zingers. These were the epigrams of the debate -- and the campaign.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

Politics: Analysis -- Obama didn't score knockout but landed more punches

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer: Partisanship in small differences

The debate was a challenge for both candidates as Romney and Obama had to highlight the differences between their foreign policy agendas, even though the gaps between them are not as great as their supporters suggest.

In many respects, both candidates live under the shadow of President George W. Bush and have embraced much of the broad outlines of his war on terrorism.

But, as the debate demonstrated, we should not underestimate how intense the partisan battles can be even when the actual policy differences are not grand.

In an odd reversal of the politics of post-9/11, Romney spent much of his time trying to turn the tables on the White House by saying that the United States can't kill its way out of "this mess" and that it needs to work on turning people away from Islamic extremism. He talked about investment, economic development, education, gender equality and creating civil societies, rather than about war.

In contrast, Obama focused on having decimated al Qaeda and bringing two wars to an end. More important, however, his goal was to make Romney look inexperienced and incapable of handling this role, raising questions about his competence by referring to statements such as the one he made over the threat of Russia. He also hammered away at another theme, clarity versus flip-flops, when he said, "You are all over the map," in hopes of contrasting his vision with, what he says, is Romney's muddle.

But perhaps the most revealing part of the night was how quickly both men turned away from foreign policy altogether. Understanding that Americans are worried about their pocketbooks, Romney and Obama took every opportunity possible to turn the discussion back to domestic issues, ranging from jobs to health care to education to the deficit. "Let me get back to foreign policy," said moderator Bob Schieffer in frustration.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

Opinion: Was Obama too relentless with Romney?

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Obama schools Romney on foreign policy

Romney forgot the first rule of presidential politics, and he paid dearly for it: "Don't try to argue foreign policy with a commander in chief." Chances are, he gets better briefings than you.

Especially when, up to this point, your diplomatic experience, as governor of the Bay State, is limited to having kept the peace between Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Score one for Obama, who took his Republican challenger to school -- foreign policy school -- during Monday's debate, the last matchup of the 2012 election.

Romney was right that "attacking me is not an agenda," but it sure was effective.

It's been clear for some time that Obama doesn't know that much about foreign affairs. But the good news for Democrats is that, as little as Obama knows about the world, Romney apparently knows less. He all but advertised that fact when he abruptly steered the conversation back to where he feels comfortable: the economy, jobs and the national debt.

Romney did a few things right, including inserting Latin America into the conversation. It's stunning that moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS -- who said he had come up with the questions himself and touched on Syria, Iran, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other corners of the globe -- couldn't come up with a single question about what is going on in our own backyard.

But Romney blew it by deferring too much to Obama and essentially adopting the president's foreign policy as his own.

Meanwhile, Obama was focused and on message. He kept drilling away at the charge that Romney was "all over the map" with his foreign policy views, and that this confused our allies and emboldened our enemies.

Being commander in chief isn't a job you can prepare for. You learn on the job. Ask George W. Bush, who grew into the role nicely after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Obama grew in office as well, and he used Monday's debate to show us all how much.

The knockout punch came with this devastating line, delivered by the president unto his challenger: "I know that you haven't been in a position to execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered a position, you've been wrong. ..."

Ouch. That's going to leave a mark.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

World: Global reaction to final debate -- Disappointment

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson: Obama punches connected; Romney showed the stress

I feel bad for Sen. Rob Portman.

There he was, Romney's debate-prep sparring partner, being interviewed by CNN's John Acosta not long after the debate, trying to convince himself as much as the viewers that Romney had a good night.

Anyone who watched the final debate could see that Romney -- who at times was sweating under the pressure -- did not have a good night. By the time Obama said "horses," "bayonets" and "Battleship" it was over.

Romney looked inexperienced, naive and because he agreed so much with the president -- subservient to a degree. He looked like a challenger, not a president. Obama did a very good job of reminding voters of Romney's flip-flopping, the fact that he's been wrong on so many foreign policy issues as a candidate and the manner in which he turned his back on the auto industry.

That last part is important because of the importance of Michigan and Ohio in the race to 270. If any two states understand the importance of the auto bailouts and what Romney said about them, it's those two. Romney may be able to whitewash the history that is being read by the 48 other states, but those two remember.

Romney was born in Detroit but he's not a son of Detroit. Sons come home and visit family -- most of Romney's campaign stops in Michigan are in rich suburbs away from Detroit. Sons take care of family -- not write op-eds suggesting the city where they were born should be allowed to suffer. Sons do not struggle to find support at home -- Romney is not only trailing in Michigan, where he was born, but also in Massachusetts, where he was governor.

And speaking of Massachusetts, Obama reminded voters that the state was 48th in small business development when Romney -- the great job creator -- was governor. The president landed numerous factual jabs on Romney's jaw, and the counterpunches we expected to be thrown by Romney -- specifically Benghazi, Libya -- were never thrown.

Why?

Who knows?

But what is known is the president lost the first debate by a landslide and has won the last two debates comfortably. The impact on the race to the White House is still a mystery -- much like Romney's core beliefs.

LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs

Opinion: Obama-stare puts spell on Romney

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Bob Greene: Now, on to the bumpy finish

"The clock is ticking."

With 38 minutes remaining in Monday night's debate, Obama spoke those words.

His context was Iran. But he might as well have been talking about those 38 minutes until, finally, the debates of the 2012 presidential campaign would be over.

There have been 24 of them, if you include the debates from the Republican primary (and 31, if you count the forums that weren't technically counted as debates). "We have come to the end," moderator Bob Schieffer said as he invited Obama and Romney to give their closing statements. You could almost see the relief in the candidates' eyes.

From now on, for the two weeks until Election Day, they won't have to answer many questions, certainly not in a formal setting. The two men won't even have to look at each other. ("Good to see you. Good to see you again," they had said at the beginning of Monday night's proceedings, as if they meant it.) They, and their commercials, will be able to make whatever points their campaigns feel will be most effective, without worrying about an instant rebuttal or interruption from the guy a few feet away.

That split screen that you saw -- Romney on one side, Obama on the other? These do not appear to be men who desire to share a screen, or a stage, with anyone. At its core, the next two weeks will be about each man trying to erase the line in the middle of the screen and take the entirety of it for himself.

"That brings an end to this year's debates," Schieffer said after the closing statements. The unspoken message to the audience, and the nation:

"Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. ..."

It's going to get a little bumpy. This campaign, at long last, is coming in for a landing.

Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

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