During the first half of the debate, Romney was playing for a tie while Obama was playing for a win. That made a certain sense. As commander-in-chief, Obama has an inherent advantage on foreign policy. So long as Romney stands toe-to-toe and achieves a rough equality with a sitting president on foreign policy, he gains credibility and keeps his momentum in this race. Even so, there was a danger at first that Obama’s attacks and his generally strong posture would give him a win. (I mean “posture,” in part, literally. Some might not have liked Obama’s forward stare and general demeanor, but I thought it was effective.)
Partway through the debate, however, Romney started pushing for the win. His pivot to the economy might have seemed like evasion, but Obama followed him into domestic policy because he saw the risk of not answering the challenge. This put Romney on familiar ground and you could see his confidence grow.
Then Romney came hard at Obama on Iran, Israel, and the general decline of America’s influence in the world. The look on Obama’s face as Romney was discussing Democratic concerns about his Israel policy was pained. It was the first time he lost his confident stare. Then Romney did what he does best, paint a picture of general decline in America’s fortunes abroad under Obama’s stewardship. This worked almost as well on foreign policy as it does when Romney applies it to domestic policy. It was the pivotal moment of the debate.
By the end I thought Romney had at least won his tie, and maybe even inched out victory by a nose. He did it by playing offense at critical moments during a generally restrained, respectful, and competent performance. In effect, Romney carefully pivoted between playing for a tie and a win, and the strategy worked.
Obama has got to be concerned now. He held up his end well enough, but the president needed more than that to halt Romney’s momentum. Romney has now decisively established himself as a credible alternative to Obama. At a moment when the public thinks this country is headed in the wrong direction, that spells serious trouble for the incumbent.