4 Key Takeaways From the Final Presidential Debate

PHOTO:  Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had an inconsistent final presidential debate on foreign policy Monday night.

Both candidates sparred over turmoil in the Middle East in countries like Syria and Libya, but the debate also veered off topic at many points into subjects like the economy and education.

And sure, the 90-minute match featured heavy discussions about Israel and Iran, but it largely ignored other pressing areas like Latin America.

In the end, Obama sought to impugn Romney's foreign policies, and Romney indicted Obama's record as ineffective, saying he would make a more assertive commander in chief and build stronger relationships with U.S. allies.

So what exactly is worth noting? Here are some of the key moments:

1. "All Over The Map"

Obama set out on a mission to paint Romney as a man who is not ready to serve as commander in chief. The president started off the debate forcefully, dinging Romney for calling Russia the nation's biggest geopolitical threat.

"When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama responded.

The president attacked Romney's line on the nation having its smallest Navy since World War I.

"Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed," he said. "And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships."

And Obama repeatedly attacked Romney's stance on fighting terror and drawing troops down in Afghanistan as "all over the map."

Meanwhile, Romney accused Obama of trying to divert attention from his own record.

"Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East," Romney said.

"We can't kill our way out of this mess," he added.

One of the most shocking exchanges came when Romney went after Obama's record on Israel.

He accused the president of putting distance between the U.S.'s strongest ally while going on an "apology tour" in Muslim nations in the Middle East while skipping the Jewish state."Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators," Romney said.

Obama fired back aggressively, invoking his visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial when he was a candidate. "If we're going to talk about trips that we've taken -- when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors," he said.

"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."

While Obama came well prepared to counter Romney in an effort to score a clear win, the Republican candidate sought to prove he had the knowledge and expertise to be commander in chief. At one point, he even referenced al Qaeda activity in the African nation of Mali. Romney deflected Obama's jabs but overall, but took a more cautious approach on sensitive issues like the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

In fact, one of the more maddening aspects of the debate was that, despite all the talk, the candidates did not draw many clear distinctions on how their policies are different from one another. That was evident in areas like how to resolve the Syrian civil war, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, relations with Pakistan, withdrawal from Afghanistan and drone strikes.

While Romney said he would provide bolder leadership than Obama, he was wary about saying he would get the U.S. involved in overseas conflicts, sensing a war-weary electorate.

2. Latin America, pobrecito

If you tuned in expecting substantive talk on Latin America, just as we predicted, you came away extremely disappointed.

The candidates owe the country an explanation on how they would approach Mexico and its costly war against drug cartels that has left 60,000 dead. To put that in perspective, that's just about equal to the number of American deaths in the Vietnam War.

It's a tough subject with no easy answers, plus, a discussion about the drug war and the flow of illegal guns south of the border provides little political benefit to the candidates among undecided voters. That is not to mention how Romney or Obama would handle the possible deaths of Fidel Castro in Cuba or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Other than a short retrospective from moderator Bob Schieffer on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and a Romney's superficial name-check of Latin American trade, we didn't get to hear a discussion on the region of any of the three presidential debates.

This map from Matt Yglesias best sums it up.

3. "Let Me Get Back to Foreign Policy"

Not only did the candidates fail to draw many clear distinctions on foreign policy, they often disengaged on the subject entirely. If you tuned in during the middle of the debate, say during a commercial break during "Monday Night Football" or the National League Championship Series, there is a chance you may have been confused as to the subject of the debate. The candidates delved into spats over the economy, auto industry, and even teacher unions.

The debate veered off course so badly during the middle that Schieffer interjected with, "Let me get back to foreign policy."

For the campaigns, that might not be such a bad thing. The results of a focus group of so-called "Walmart moms" (undecided female voters with minor children who shop at the big box store) in Orlando, Fla. showed a greater spike in interest during the discussion over domestic policy rather than foreign policy, according to ABC News.

It's clear that the candidates believe the voters wanted to hear more about pocketbook issues than their foreign policy views.

4. Waning Interest

The initial figures show that this may have been the debate that spurred the least interest among voters. According to Twitter, there were 6.5 million overall tweets during this debate. That's almost on par with the second debate, but down from the 10 million tweets that were sent during the first contest in Denver.

That said, the debate went up against the Bears-Lions game and the seventh game in the NLCS.

There little question the debates had an influential effect on the trajectory of the race, we would likely be writing Romney's campaign obituary if it had not been for his first debate performance. But by the third contests, it appeared that voters were paying less attention.

With the debates concluded, the campaigns will spend the next two weeks firing up their core supporters to show up and vote. The polls show the race is extremely close, so buckle up and expect a photo (or meme) finish.