Election 2014  
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Final Debate: Obama Scores a Win

Is it too late for voters to change their minds?

On Monday night, Barack Obama won a decisive victory over Mitt Romney in a debate that's unlikely to swing a lot of votes. The CBS snap-poll, which had given Mitt Romney a 24-point margin of victory in the first debate, found Obama winning the third and final contest by 30 points. Public Policy Polling's survey of swing-state voters found Obama winning 53-42 among that group; CNN scored it for Obama by 8. And Fox News pundits declared the debate a “draw,” which suggests that Obama's win was difficult to deny.

But the two candidates battled over foreign policy, ranked low on voters' list of issues, and they did so going up against both Monday Night Football and the deciding game of the National League Championship series. One can be pretty confident that Monday's debate was watched by far fewer people than the first two, at a time when far fewer voters remain on the fence.

Coming into the debate, Obama enjoyed the advantage of incumbency – having a foreign policy record to run on that is seen as strong by the rather narrow standards of the Beltway media. According to Gallup, as the evening began, Obama led on the question of who voters trust to handle foreign affairs by a 12-point margin (53-41).

He pressed that advantage, taking credit for ending the American military's active involvement in Iraq, promising to fulfill his pledge to complete the transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014, touting the number of unfair trade complaints he'd filed against China and, of course, reminding voters that he'd ordered the raid that finally got Osama Bin Laden.

Romney enjoys an advantage from the debate format itself. He's able to furiously shake his etch-a-sketch, and in real-time the average voter has little way of knowing how far his rhetoric is straying from the positions he'd staked out for much of the campaign.

Romney did exactly that on Monday, portraying himself as a candidate dedicated first and foremost to promoting global peace, a dubious claim given that he has assembled a foreign policy team that includes some of the most belligerent veterans of the Bush administration – people like John Bolton and Eliot Cohen. In one notable exchange, Romney said, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess. 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.”

His strategy for the evening was transparent: to assure voters that he would not pursue a Bush foreign policy – and especially to assure women of his reasonableness. He talked about combating terrorism by promoting economic growth, education, gender equality and the rule of law in the so-called “Muslim world.” Three of the four mentions of the United Nations came from the mouth of the Republican candidate.

In this debate, Romney almost entirely abandoned the bizarre Fox News-style talking-points that had gotten him in trouble in the previous one. There was no talk of Obama "sympathizing" with terrorists or "apologizing for our values." On the few occasions when he did – like when he mentioned Obama's “apology tour” – he got burned by it. Obama responded by saying, “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.”

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