Tonight’s debate won’t be remembered as one of the most significant of presidential debates. Both candidates ran through their rehearsed talking points and zingers, and did score some points. The CNN poll of debate watchers essentially called it a tie — 48 percent said President Obama did better, to 40 percent for Romney. When it came to whether they could see the candidates as commander-in-chief, 63 percent responded affirmatively for President Obama, but 60 percent said “yes” for Romney, too. The strategy Romney appeared to focus on — not addressing the Benghazi terror attack and making calming points for war-weary voters in the audience — appears to have worked in political terms. Obama, by way of contrast, came across as an aggressive challenger who sometimes veered into peevishness. As just one example, CNN’s post-debate poll found viewers believed Obama was the more aggressive of the two tonight by a margin of 68 percent to 21.
But for many independent and undecided voters, there turned out to be two debates tonight. There was a foreign-policy debate that was scheduled, and that debate, Obama may have won narrowly on points. But there was also another debate: More than a quarter of the 90 minutes veered into domestic issues — ranging from education to job training to unemployment and the growing national debt.
That mini-debate went to Mitt Romney as he relentlessly repeated his major themes — the president’s last four years haven’t worked, take-home pay is down, 23 million are unemployed or underemployed, and the national debt has grown from $10 trillion to $16 trillion. Since far more Americans ultimately vote on domestic concerns than foreign policy, Romney was smart to reserve his sharpest criticism for Obama’s fiscal and economic record. Those points hit home, and Obama seemed a bit surprised and on the defensive when trying to justify his domestic record.
So there were two debates, but the one that was not advertised — the one on domestic policy — went to Romney, and likely will solidify his position with independent voters on the issues that matter most to them.