It would be easy to declare, simply because he didn't lose, that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the winner of the third presidential debate. Romney, who has been surging in the polls since he and President Barack Obama first met face-to-face in Denver, arguably had more at stake in Monday night's contest—which was supposed to be devoted to discussions of foreign policy and national security.
Romney should be called the winner, however, for reasons more complicated than that. The GOP nominee came across as focused and deliberate while the president, once again, preferred to attack the straw men his campaign has constructed rather than defend his record which, the killing of Osama bin Laden aside, is decidedly mixed.
More importantly, Obama came to the debate ready to continue the rough and tumble fight that broke out in the town hall format moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. Romney showed up ready to make his case against the rigorous questioning of CBS's Bob Schieffer. To put it another way, Romney was ready for the task at hand while Obama was prepared to fight the last battle.
Obama quite clearly expected Romney to revisit his pointed criticism of the way he and his administration have mishandled the unfolding crisis in Libya. The president was ready for sharp elbows and accusations that he and his colleagues has misstated the facts about the massacre in Benghazi and that they had refused for days on end to call it a terrorist act, the now-infamous Rose Garden speech notwithstanding. Instead, Romney went in a different direction on Libya, which was the first question out of the box.
Romney came to put forward an agenda, which including cracking down on Chinese currency manipulation, keeping the Iranians from developing nuclear capability, expanding free trade into Latin America, and dealing more effectively with the aftermath of the so-called "Arab Spring," which has created as many problems for the United States as it has solved. The president arrived at the debate ready to attack, to interrupt, and to treat his challenger in a condescending manner that, frankly, worked against the president's long-term interests.
People will remember Obama's comments about bayonets and horses, about aircraft carriers and submarines that were delivered in such a smarmy manner that it made the president look like a challenger desperate to score points against a front-runner trying to husband his lead rather than the leader of the free world.
Romney won Monday's debate by not losing it—but also because he made a better case, seemed to have a better grasp of the issues, and because he seemed more presidential than the incumbent.