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Presidential debate: After foreign-policy moment, it's back to Ohio (+video)

With the race dead even, President Obama and Mitt Romney close the books on presidential debates and head into a two-week sprint to Nov. 6 election, to be fought out on the economy.

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To Romney’s assertion that the Navy is smaller than at any time since 1917, Obama quipped, “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed.”

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“So the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships,” Obama added. Still, the comparison of ships to horses and bayonets won't help him win the military vote in the battleground state of Virginia, home to the world's largest naval base.

But the candidates agree on the core issue of linking a stronger US economy to the nation’s ability to project power overseas. That led into a discussion of nationbuilding at home, including education policy. When the candidates began arguing about Romney’s record on education in Massachusetts, debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS nudged them back to the prescribed focus of the debate.

“Let me get back to foreign policy,” he said.

In the spin room afterward, aides to both candidates declared confidently their bosses had won the showdown, and were on their way to victory in two weeks. For Romney, who eliminated his deficit in national polls with Obama after the first debate and maintained it after the second, the key is to close the gap in a handful of tossup states, most important among them Ohio.  

“I think the momentum continues tonight,” said Ed Gillespie, a top Romney adviser. “As we’ve seen, as the American people see Mitt Romney directly for themselves and they hear him talk about his own positions, not the snippets on newscasts ...  they see he clearly has the capacity to be commander in chief, he has a plan to make us stronger economically at home.”

During the debate, Obama made his usual bow to the Midwest battleground in bringing up his intervention to save the auto industry. Obama’s advisers pointed to the exchange on the issue as a boon to the president.

“I must say, that long, sort of uncomfortable segment on the auto bailout tonight certainly isn’t going to help Governor Romney in Michigan,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist.

Still, it’s Ohio – where 1 in 8 jobs is tied to the auto industry – where the auto message is most crucial.

Obama brought up Ohio directly, in relation to a recent decision by the World Trade Organization to bar China from placing duties on certain US steel exports.

“Just recently,” Obama said, “steelworkers in Ohio and throughout the Midwest, Pennsylvania, are in a position now to sell steel to China, because we won that case.”

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