Published for National Review’s ‘The Corner’, October 23, 2012
If you knew nothing about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney except what you saw in their final debate, you would have assumed that Romney was the incumbent president, that Obama was the challenger trying to unseat him, that Romney was clearly leading in the polls going in and that he remained there going out. You wouldn’t necessarily think Romney won the debate, but you would think he was winning the race.
It was absolutely clear that both candidates understood that this debate was entirely about Mitt Romney. Romney’s only goal was to seem presidential, and Obama’s only goal was to make Romney seem not presidential. By that measure, Romney clearly achieved his aim and Obama clearly did not. Romney did this by treating this debate very differently than the other two. He didn’t really try to score points, and he wasn’t afraid to express agreement with Obama, which he did remarkably often. His goal was to answer every question with a calm, responsible attitude and convey sobriety and level-headedness. The calculation must have been pretty simple: voters are not greatly concerned with foreign policy this year, but they wouldn’t elect someone they don’t trust on foreign policy. So having clearly conveyed his differences with Obama on domestic issues and his own domestic agenda, Romney merely needed to be a plausible commander in chief—to convey deep knowledge and the right attitude, to avoid getting rattled, to deny Obama the chance to label him a war monger or an amateur, and to waive off attacks on himself by returning to his core domestic message and reminding voters that the president is running on nothing.