Monday night’s presidential debate has been widely judged a win for President Obama, but not exactly a loss for his challenger, Mitt Romney.
Mr. Obama carried the night, according to snap polls, because of his command of facts and use of his presidential experience. But whereas Obama “lost” the first debate last month for coming across as subdued, Governor Romney is seen as having held his own Monday by consciously adopting a subdued stance.
Clearly the Romney camp decided the electorate does not want a shrill, in-your-face-president.
Still the debate offered some notable moments – some unscripted, others clearly canned and rehearsed – that offer something to chew on as we move into the final two weeks of the campaign. Here are six:
Did Romney mix up 'foes' Iran and Russia?
Romney displayed a presidential understanding of issues ranging from Al Qaeda in northern Mali to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East. But he got something wrong on Iran, namely its geography.
“Syria’s is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea,” he said.
Regional analysts often underscore Russia’s interest in maintaining its ties to Syria in part for the access it offers to the Mediterranean Sea – but Iran? Actually Iran has more than 1,500 miles of coastline on the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. And it can access the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal.
Another Big Bird moment?
While the third presidential debate was officially devoted to foreign policy issues, both Obama and Romney frequently circled back to domestic concerns, making the case that the US economy and education are important components of America's current and future standing on the world stage.
When Romney declared, “I love teachers,” it sounded perilously close to the Republican candidate’s quip in the first debate that, despite his affection for Big Bird, as president he would cut federal subsidies to public television, Big Bird’s home.
Romney’s full statement – “I love teachers, and I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers do that” – suggested that as president, Romney would cut federal education programs like Obama’s “Race to the Top.”
No hugging the Russian bear.
Obama accused Romney of harking back to the 1980s and the cold war with his characterization of Russia as America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe – something Romney said earlier this year.
But Romney was ready for the punch. He acknowledged having called Russia “a geopolitical foe” but went on to specify that he has always seen and referred to Iran as America’s biggest national security threat.
Then he turned the tables on Obama, and counterpunched with a slap at the president’s "reset" policy.
“I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Romney said. “And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election,” he added, referring to a comment Obama made to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that was inadvertently picked up by an open mic.
The better friend of Israel battle, chapter umpteen.
Romney once again questioned Obama’s dedication to Israel, noting that as president he visited Cairo but not Jerusalem.
Obama was ready for the charge.
"If we're going to talk about trips that we've taken – when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate,” he said, “I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to ... the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself [of] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
Obama also spoke of his visit to Sderot, the southern Israeli town that has often been the target of rocket fire from Gaza – what prompted the US-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system now in place.
New toughness on Iran – or a misstatement that won’t be forgotten?
A number of foreign policy analysts who admit their eyes were beginning to glaze over sat bolt upright when Obama seemed to stake out a new, tougher demand for Iran if it wants to secure relief from the international sanctions devastating its economy.
“We hope that their leadership takes the right decision,” he said. “But the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.”
End their nuclear program, including all uranium enrichment even for civilian purposes? Has Obama suddenly embraced the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or did the president over-generalize his position, and did he really mean there must be no nuclear weapons program?
Obama later nuanced his original categorical rejection of any Iranian nuclear program, saying, “There is a deal to be had, and that is that they abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program; there are inspections that are very intrusive.”
But there it was again, that “no nuclear program.”
Obama portrays Romney as a potential commander-in-chief … for the early 20th century.
Romney accused Obama of allowing America’s military superiority to slip, and to make his case he said that shipbuilding for the Navy has reached its lowest pace since 1917.
Obama was ready to strike back.
"Well, Governor,” he retorted, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers,” he sniffed, “where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. So the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting slips. It's what are our capabilities."
The zinger no doubt delighted many of Obama’s ardent supporters for the way it portrayed Romney as a leader for a bygone era. But how many fence-sitters judged it to be a level of snarkiness unbecoming of a president?