Now I know why Jimmy Carter tried to get out of his debates in his re-election campaign in 1980. Debates are structurally bad for incumbents, and if Obama loses on November 6th, we will look back on the debates as a major reason why.
Having said that, I would give tonight's debate to Obama on points. The president had some good lines. Romney's foreign policy ideas are "wrong and reckless." The Romney claim that our Navy is smaller than at any time since 1917; Obama ridiculed it by telling Romney that while we have fewer ships today, "we also have fewer horses and bayonets…We have these things called aircraft carriers and… submarines." Obama was also effective on reiterating his support for Israel and his policy on Iran, and Romney drew few distinctions.
Indeed, in many of his answers on foreign affairs, Romney seemed to be saying, ‘I would have done the same things the president has done… only a little better.’
However, here's the problem, and it's a strategic one that most field commanders can appreciate. The president simply has more ground to defend. The first several questions , for example, were thorny for Obama, such as the attack in Benghazi and the unrest in Syria. Obama did ok, but he was immediately on the defensive, allowing Romney, as he did repeatedly thoughout the night, to deliver a succinct indictment: "Nowhere in the world today," Romney charged, "is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago."
As an Obama supporter, I found much of Romney's indictment bogus and his vision hazy. (I think I will gag if I hear Romney tout his empty five-point plan again.) Once again, Romney didn't bother to explain how his tax plan can possibly work, given its mathematical contradictions.
But for much of the evening, Obama was trying to score points by delving into the details — even telling us about rewriting certification rules to make it easier for medics in the military to become civilian nurses when they return home. Obama, no doubt feeling the heat of the polls, was once again the aggressor tonight. But this allowed Romney to remain thematic with phrases like "we can be a partner with China; we don’t have to be an adversary" and "attacking me is not an agenda."
As the debate wore on, I thought Romney's cleverness and generalities wore thin, and in the debate’s final segments, Obama had a strong moment on Romney's support for a "managed bankruptcy" for the auto industry.
At the end of the debate, both candidates gave strong closing arguments: Obama giving the best specific case yet for a second term and closing with a personal appeal. Romney concluded on his home base of competence and experience on the economy and closing also with a strong, personal appeal.
Despite winning a technical victory, Obama gained little tonight. Romney looked moderate again tonight: calm, reasonable, and someone you can see in the Oval Office, his main goal for the evening. Obama's goal was harder and unrealized; he his not disqualify the challenger.