This analysis originally appeared online at Al Jazeera English.
Tonight’s third and final presidential debate in the US turned out to be more substantive and entertaining than expected.
While no tectonic shifts in the polls will occur a change did happen tonight, a subtle but significant one that may end up resonating throughout the final two weeks of this campaign. This was a night that both parties may look back upon in two weeks as the beginning of something, small, imperceptible at first but which snowballed into a victory for one or the other.
Here are the three main takeaways from tonight’s debate.
1. Mitt’s Missed Opportunity: Whether Mitt Romney was surging for the last three weeks or if the race was simply tightening as uncommitted voters moved off the fence, he was in an excellent position heading into this third debate. With the race essentially tied and polls in swing states just past the margin of error tonight was a chance for Romney to close the gap in the one area where Barack Obama has beat him all year: Foreign Policy. Instead Romney gave a lackluster performance at best. He muddled through the debate like a man with an eight-point lead in the polls 24 hours before election day instead of a man who is tied in the polls, and behind in the electoral college with two weeks of campaigning left. Whatever surge for Romney that existed died on the stage at Lynn University tonight, and if it stays dead that might be enough for Obama to scrape out a victory.
2. Obama Steals Romney’s Message: The silver bullet of the Romney campaign tonight was supposed to be Romney making the poor US economy a national security issue. Instead Obama took that baton and ran with it before Mitt Romney had finished tying his shoe laces. Obama was discussing how building the economy at home was critical to US political strength abroad in the first question and he never let up. While Romney made a point of mentioning the vast economic malaise that has struck the nation he never made the connection between politics and dollar bills as firmly as the president.
3. Off the Cuff versus Prepared Statements: President Obama ruled the night with a series of one-liners and off-the-cuff statements that left Governor Romney looking flustered and stymied for most of the night. The most powerful exchange was when Romney attacked the president for letting the navy shrink to the size it was in the early 20th century. Obama struck back by pointing out that the army didn’t use “Horses and Bayonets” anymore either but that the military needed to modernize. He then went on a brutal and condescending riff about the value of air-craft carriers and the air force solidifying his narrative that Romney had no clue about the modern military. Unlike some other areas of the debate, this was not substantive policy debate. Nevertheless it was the kind of witty tough talk that echoes through social networking sites, on late night American talk shows and news programmes that will give Americans an idea as to not only who won the debate but how.
Romney had a chance tonight to close the foreign policy gap. However he failed in spectacular fashion and most instant post-debate polls show him losing to Obama by anywhere from 10 to 25 points in this third debate. Obama had to show competence this evening and not only did he show competence but he probably closed the gap in “Leadership” where Romney usually led him. If this debate freezes the campaign at this date, even in a slow and subtle way, then Obama might just have won the election tonight. Romney clearly did not do anything to keep his momentum going up or Obama’s numbers trending down.