Analysis: Foreign policy debate unlikely to change many minds

President Barack Obama speaks during the third presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

If you look at it in a vacuum, it's hard not to conclude that President Obama won Monday's foreign policy-focused presidential debate: The president projected a firm grasp on his administration's positions, spoke forcefully, and landed a number of broadsides against his rival. A CBS News focus group of uncommitted voters taken immediately after the debate found that 53 percent believed Mr. Obama was the stronger debater, compared to just 23 percent for Mitt Romney.

But this was almost certainly the least important of the three debates, and it's hard to imagine that the candidates' performance will have much of an impact on who wins the White House. Let's start with the topic: Polls overwhelmingly show that the economy, not foreign policy, is voters' top concern, which is why you saw the candidates repeatedly try to shift the conversation back to their argument on that front. Both campaigns are well aware that the candidates' positions on sanctions in Iran or arming Syrian rebels simply are not going to have a significant impact.

Then there's the timing. The first debate allowed Romney to elevate himself to the president's level, prompting a surge in the polls. The second debate gave Mr. Obama the chance to reassure demoralized liberals that he was still engaged and willing to take it to his rival. This debate came at a time when the parameters for the home stretch had been set, and it would have taken a much starker difference between the candidates than we saw Monday night to significantly shake things up. Four years ago, John McCain came out firing in the final presidential debate (which, like this one, was moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer), and it had little impact on the race: McCain was trailing by eight percentage points when he stepped onto the debate stage, and went on to lose the race by seven points less than three weeks later.

Romney was cautious on Monday night: He passed on an opportunity to strongly attack the president on a number of issues, including his administration's handling of the Sept. 11 attack in Libya. He also declined to draw strong distinctions between his positions and Obama administration policy. That's partially because, when all is said and done, there is little difference between the two men on foreign policy. But it was also, Romney aides said following the debate, a strategic decision. The calculation was that Romney did not need to be particularly aggressive: He could look presidential by declining to go on the attack and letting the incumbent assume the attack-dog mode that is traditionally associated with the challenger.

It was a smart strategy: Romney, who lacks foreign policy experience, is clearly more comfortable discussing the economy, and Mr. Obama has a relatively strong record on foreign policy that left his rival with few openings. But it also meant that the president got to land the majority of the blows. There was, of course, the most memorable line of the night: When Romney pointed out that the Navy was smaller than it used to be and called for more ships to be built, the president responded that "we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed." The line caught fire on the internet, though it's worth noting that, as Romney's surrogates pointed out, it also likely fired up some Navy veterans to back the GOP candidate.