From 'Horses and Bayonets,' Obama and Romney Supporters Squabble About Debate Takeaways

Each side claims its candidate topped the other in the foreign policy showdown.

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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney pass each other in Boca Raton, Fla., after the third presidential debate.

BOCA RATON, Fla.—Making cracks about modernizing the American military from "horses and bayonets," President Barack Obama spent 90 minutes during the third and final presidential debate trying to knock Republican opponent Mitt Romney off his game. And advisers on both sides of the aisle tried to continue the fight long after the two White House contenders left the stage.

Obama's campaign team repeatedly used the word "unsteady" to describe Romney's performance at Lynn University on Monday night, hoping to undermine his credibility with voters. Traditionally, many viewers of foreign policy debates decide whether presidential candidates pass the so-called "commander in chief test," rather than pay attention to the candidate's nuanced position on the global policy.

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"Mitt Romney, frankly, he was unsteady and he also tried to embrace the president on issues and we accept his endorsement of how well the president has done as commander in chief," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina also repeatedly called Romney "unsteady" and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter labeled Romney "incredibly uncertain."

"What we saw tonight is that Mitt Romney doesn't really have a foreign policy, he doesn't have a vision, and he was incredibly uncertain," Cutter said. "You didn't see a commander in chief standing up there tonight."

It's not clear if viewers agree with that characterization yet, but snap polls following the debate did show a majority of watchers naming Obama the winner.

The Romney campaign followed the debate up by building on Romney's criticisms of the Obama administration policies on Israel, defense cuts, and by connecting the weak American economy with the country's place in the world.

"I think Governor Romney really acted presidential," said New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a top Romney surrogate. "Most importantly, without a strong economy, we cannot have a strong foreign policy or strength throughout the world. Without prosperity we cannot have strength or peace."

Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that while both Romney and Obama vowed to stand by Israel during the debate, the relationship between the two allies would be improved under a Romney administration.

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"Our relationship with our ally is not what folks would like it to be," he said. "There's no question there's friction between the Democratically elected prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States and that's not good. I don't think it's personality—I think there are clear policy differences here and that as a result the relationship is strained and that's a disappointment in these difficult times."

Romney's supporters also highlight the fact that Romney showed a firm grasp of worldly issues and portrayed himself as a strong, capable leader.

"He showed executive leadership and he demonstrated you cannot have strong world leadership without having a strong economy at home and I thought he demonstrated a fluency and knowledge of world events and showed how the president's policy is really unraveling," said Rep. Peter King of New York.

While the debate featured many examples of Romney agreeing with or praising foreign policy decisions made by Obama, such as the decision to go after Osama bin Laden, the ending of the Iraq war, and the 2014 deadline for combat troops in Afghanistan, the supporters in the spin room couldn't disagree about their agreements more.

"There was some common acknowledgement of complex issues," said Dan Senor, Romney's senior foreign policy adviser. "There's issues where there's just common acknowledgement of the reality but I thought on major issues— China, Russia, Israel, Iran, the defense budget—there was a pretty stark contrast and strong debate."

Obama advisers said Romney was merely trying to piggyback on Obama's leadership.

"You saw Romney trying to hug the president on issues that he was uncertain about, but I thought that on major issues there's not agreement," Messina said.

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The two sides also disagreed on the effectiveness of the president's barb rebutting Romney's critique of his plans to curb defense spending.

"You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916," Obama said. "Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. The question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."

"Horses and bayonets" became the top rising search in Google, according to a press release by the search engine.

"I found tonally the president at times sounded petty," said Ayotte. "The joke about the ships? You think about it … I didn't understand why he thinks we shouldn't have a strong Navy."

Messina, who claimed it was not a rehearsed line, called it an "amazing moment."

"You had a president who understood where exactly to take this country on foreign policy and military might and you had Romney reverting to the same failed policies of the past and that's a pretty big difference," he said.

The presidential race now stands virtually tied in national and swing-state polling just two weeks away from Election Day. Both campaigns have scheduled frantic politicking in places such as Ohio, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, and Virginia, the remaining battleground states.

Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at rmetzler@usnews.com.