Candidates clash on foreign policy
Mitt Romney affected another major transformation last night, morphing from a hawk who less than a year ago suggested that if the US wanted peace it must prepare for war to Mr Romney the peacenik and advocate of civil society, promising not bombs but development aid, challenging Barack Obama from his left flank when he said "we can’t kill our way out of this mess" in the Middle East.
It was the same manoeuvre Romney executed in Denver on October 3rd, the same rush towards the elusive undecided and independent voters at the political centre, adapted from domestic to foreign policy.
This time, Mr Obama was ready for it, repeatedly saying he was glad the former governor had seen the light, all the while pointing out that Romney had been "all over the map".
If the president won on points, as most pundits agreed, Mr Romney was the smoother, more congenial salesman, peddling simple, safe change with a paternalistic smile. "We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam… reject this radical violent extremism," he said. Nice work if you can get it.
On the 'spin room' floor, surrogates for both candidates claimed victory. "The whole evening, the president was a strong commander-in-chief," said David Axelrod, senior advisor to Mr Obama.
"On foreign policy, it’s a very clear choice between a decisive, clear leader and a guy who keeps changing and who looks backward."
"I thought it was a great night for Mitt Romney," said Republican Senator Rob Portman, who has played the role of Obama in practice debates. "Mitt Romney sounded like the guy who was ready to be commander-in-chief."
No one predicted the debate would break Romney’s momentum in the polls. "We said from the very beginning 18 months ago that this was going to be a close election," said Jim Messina, Mr Obama’s campaign manager. "We have a much bigger ground operation. It’s all about leadership. You saw a strong and sturdy Barack Obama. That’s why tonight was a good moment."
"We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan," said Mr Romney the peacenik, eager to reassure those who are alarmed by his Bush era neo-conservative advisors. The new Mr Romney even quoted "Arab scholars… organised by the UN" when he recommended "more economic development… better education… gender equality… the rule of law… to help these nations create civil societies."
Mr Obama chided Mr Romney for calling Russia a geopolitical threat. "The Cold War’s been over for 20 years," he noted. "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."