BOCA RATON, Fla. —
The final debate of campaign 2012 may end up changing few minds, but it was a revealing moment that said plenty about the current state of the race for the White House. President Obama, who has seen his September lead erode, tried to rattle and disqualify his challenger. Mitt Romney, whose advisers express growing confidence about his chances of winning in November, played not to lose the debate in the hope of winning the election.
Monday’s debate produced a role reversal. If Romney was the aggressor in Denver, Obama assumed that posture in Boca Raton. If Obama was listless in the first debate, Romney was cautious and sometimes tentative in the last. Obama showed greater confidence in his command of the subject matter, but Romney sought to reassure voters that he would be steady and strong as commander in chief.
Highlights from the last presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
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Instant polls produced a predictable result: a narrow Obama victory, according to CNN, but with Romney passing the commander-in-chief test in the eyes of those who watched. The reactions offered real-time confirmation that most voters are locked into their choices and are not likely to be swayed by a few exchanges between the candidates, however effective their arguments.
In three debates, Romney offered three styles: confidently assertive in the first debate; aggressive and sometimes petulant in the second; restrained and careful in the third. He appeared to have two goals: to offer a broad critique of the president’s leadership on foreign policy while avoiding any hint of impetuousness or warlike tendencies. The last thing he wanted to suggest was that he was in the pocket of the neocons in his party.
Time and again, he put military action at the bottom of the list of options for dealing with the world’s crises. He said he did not favor direct military intervention in Syria. Praising the president for the killing of Osama bin Laden, he said, “We can’t kill our way out” of the rising turmoil across the Middle East.
Obama tried to goad him, perhaps mindful that, when Romney has been challenged by opponents in debates, he has often responded too aggressively. Romney was on guard Monday night after a performance at the second debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University in which he was judged even by supporters to be too hot.
When the president upbraided his challenger over the decline in the number of ships in the naval arsenal by noting that there were also fewer horses and bayonets in use than in the early-20th century, Romney didn’t take the bait. When the president contrasted his trip to the Middle East as a candidate in 2008 with Romney’s trip last summer, noting, for example, that he hadn’t gone to Israel to raise money from wealthy donors, Romney didn’t respond.
Before the debate, some Republicans — among them Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina — were hoping Romney would make an even more aggressive case against the president on what Graham said was the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, the continuing threats from al-Qaeda and other issues.