ANALYSIS by RICK KLEIN
In a debate about who should be commander-in-chief, Mitt Romney was just as much in command as the man in the job now.
President Obama came into the debate with a record to boast of, and he used it to play offense. He poked and prodded Romney, even tried to bayonet him at one point, and sought to lecture his opponent on what it’s like actually to be president.
The president accomplished what he needed to, particularly by taking the role of the aggressor that his base has wanted so desperately this debate season.
But Romney also had a strong debate, in pursuing different goals than the president. He sought to come across as reasonable rather than confrontational — a candidate comfortable with the campaign’s trajectory.
“Attacking me is not talking about an agenda,” Romney said at one point.
Perhaps oddly for a challenger, Romney singled out areas of agreement with the president — on Egypt, Syria, the use of drone strikes — and then used disagreements to stitch together an argument that looked forward.
“I’m optimistic about our future. I’m excited about our prospects as a nation,” he said in his closing statement. It used the word “hope” twice.
Obama’s theme for the night was that it’s been his job, with successes to boast of, and that he’s facing an opponent with scant experience on the international stage.
“The question is not a game of Battleship,” Obama said, in one of his more memorable nights of the line.
The debate is likely to spawn reactions that fit into partisan columns, as most debates do. And Obama almost certainly delivered more zingers through the course of the evening; snap polls seemed to confirm an Obama victory on points.
But Romney had already shown voters that he belongs on the stage with the president. Coming into the debate, he’d fought himself into a virtual tie with the president on key issue areas, according to the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, with little daylight between the two men on trust in handling terrorism, international affairs, or serving as commander-in-chief.
Both candidates seemed more intent on redoing the first debate, on domestic policy — Romney surely because he was strong then, Obama because he wasn’t.
There’s no going back, though, to a point where a single debate could change the trajectory of a campaign. Nothing happened tonight to change the race’s direction — and Romney walks away strong after playing on Obama’s turf, competing for his job.