Big Bird, Binders, Bayonets: Who Sank Whose Battleship?
It was the foreign policy debate that just quite… wasn't.
President Obama and Mitt Romney had agreed that the final debate of their series would be seated before moderator Bob Schieffer on a stage in Boca Raton, Fla., fielding questions on foreign policy.
In the early questions, Romney didn't go after the administration's double-speak, video-blaming, and preparedness in the Benghazi attack. The challengers then agreed against military intervention in Syria. Pundits were quickly calling this matchup the "big hug" compared to last week's rumble on Long Island.
Then the last debate in this uncomfortably tight race soon veered into teachers' unions, balancing the budget, encouraging small business, ObamaCare, and the auto bailout.
With one last televised showdown before Election Day, the former Massachusetts governor seemed eager to turn the conversation back toward his comfort zone -- and voters' priority issue -- of the economy. Obama complied, leaving Schieffer to suggest multiple times -- in what seemed more like a Sunday morning episode of Face the Nation than a potentially make-or-break national debate -- that they turn back to foreign policy.
Mali got nearly as many mentions as China. Middle East watchers got more than their share of the questions that actually stayed on topic.
"This debate is a mess right now," tweeted NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
Romney's Libya answer, when asked about policy failures and whether the White House attempted to mislead the public on what happened, was a broader take on the need to deal with Islamic radicalism.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," he said. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the -- the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is -- it's certainly not on the run."
"Governor Romney, I'm glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East," Obama said.
A sterner Obama stared at Romney during his answers, and Romney looked at Obama with a slight smile during the president's time.
Vladimir Putin even made a brief -- very brief -- appearance.
"Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years," Obama said.
"I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he'll get more backbone," Romney fired back, chiding the president that "attacking me is not an agenda."
Romney and Obama came closer again when the governor reiterated his agreement with how the White House handled the Tahrir Square revolution and overthrow of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
Romney said the greatest national security threat the U.S. faces is a weakened economy, providing the evening's segue into domestic issues.
"In order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can't have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You can't have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate. You can't have kids coming out of college, half of them can't find a job today, or a job that's commensurate with their college degree. We have to get our economy going," he said.
This led to the candidates trading barbs over unemployment numbers, Bush-era policies, new business formation, and education reform.
"The kinds of budget proposals that you've put forward, when we don't ask either you or me to pay a dime more in terms of reducing the deficit, but instead we slash support for education, that's undermining our long-term competitiveness," Obama said. "That is not good for America's position in the world, and the world notices."
Schieffer finally cut in and said he wanted to shift things back to foreign policy, "because we have heard some of this in the other debates."
Romney noted that the Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917, and the Air Force "is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947."
"And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts," he said.
"You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines," Obama said.
"And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting slips," the president sniped. "It's what are our capabilities."
Turning to Israel, Romney called out Obama for "apology tour" and not having visited the ally since being elected.
"And I think that when the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel, that they noticed that as well," Romney said. "All of these things suggested, I think, to the Iranian mullahs that, hey, you know, we can keep on pushing along here, we can keep talks going on, we're just going to keep on spinning centrifuges."
"Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true," Obama retorted.
"And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations," Romney pressed. "Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
"When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable," Obama replied. "And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms. And I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids. Which is why as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles."
Romney, however, wouldn't "go into hypotheticals" from Schieffer about what he'd do or say if the prime minister of Israel called him to say that the bombers were on their way to Iran.
"Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way, or their fighters are on the way," he said. "This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that."
"Governor, the problem is, is that on a whole range of issues, whether it's the Middle East, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's Iraq, whether it's now Iran, you've been all over the map," Obama said.
Through other talking points about Pakistan -- Romney said he wouldn't "divorce a nation on Earth that has 100 nuclear weapons" -- and the greatest threat to national security -- "I think it will continue to be terrorist networks," said Obama -- the candidates veered again to domestic policy and again found their strides, including Romney accusing Obama of "the height of silliness" in an exchange over positions on the auto bailout.
In short, Solyndra made it into the evening, while Sudan did not.
The last line before the closing statements? "I think we all love teachers," Schieffer quipped to wrap a tangle about outsourced jobs, food stamps, and the federal role in schools.
With one last shot to make their cases in the debate forums, both presidential hopefuls turned the focus back home.
"We've been through tough times but we always bounce back because of our character, because we pull together, and if I have the privilege of being your president for another four years, I promise you I will always listen to your voices," Obama said. "I will fight for your families and I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the greatest nation on earth."
"America's going to come back, and for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle," Romney said. "I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington."
CNN's post-debate poll showed 48 percent picking Obama as the winner and 40 percent favoring Romney -- like last week's town hall debate, with no clear winner.
This debate may have dropped more viewers than the previous exchanges. Lawmakers from around the District, though, hung in through the hour and a half to share their thoughts.
"I'm with Pres Obama, you have to be clear about where you stand Gov Romney. Quite frankly, Gov Romney has been all over the place. #flipflop," tweeted D.C. Councilman Marion Barry. "Hunting ain't fun when the rabbit has the gun! #Obama2012"
"Obama was not presidential in his sniping at romney," tweeted Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). "Obama was burdened during debate bc of lack of accplishment last 4yrs. And no agenda for nxt terms."