President Obama turned in his best debate performance tonight, and Mitt Romney his worst. The moderator tried to help Romney by focusing attention on Libya and by cutting Obama off right after Mitt Romney changed focus to jobs. However, it was still abundantly clear the president was the master of his subject.
Obama did make mistakes. He went off message on Libya and Syria to bring up domestic concerns, which played into Romney's hands, since he could smirkingly talk about the how bad the economy is. It smelled of desperation, of Obama trying to get back that first debate, and was clearly far away from foreign policy, where he was easily winning and making Romney look foolish.
Romney, however, more than returned the favor with mistakes galore. Romney started out with a memorized speech on the middle east, "We can't kill our way out of this mess," presumably intended to damp down expectations he would go to war with Iran, more or less undercutting his own bellicose position. He then had trouble sticking to this theme, and seemed overly proud of himself for memorizing the names of countries like Qatar. He admitted the president was right to go into Libya, and his insistence that we "take the leadership role" in Syria and funding Egyptian moderates seemed juvenile, as though America could just snap its fingers and make everybody jump. The president handled all this masterfully, talking about how America had won respect in the region. He didn't point out that Romney's claim that "We all had great hopes for the Arab Spring, for more moderation and wide participation of women and others in political and economic life" was a childish fantasy when under dictatorship, the only effective opposition in all these countries was necessarily Islamist. Indeed, Obama could have contrasted what he did in Libya with what the Republicans had done in Iran supporting the Shah, but did not.
In one respect, the focus on Libya helped Obama because Romney completely forgot to dwell on Poland and Russia, important to Ohio and Pennsylvania voters, and that has to count as a big (and rather foolish) mistake for him since he had a much better prospect of success in making Russia the bogeyman.
Romney's second big mistake was to talk about friendly relations with China when his whole campaign has been trying to China bash. The two positions don't mesh, and there was an air of unreality about his claiming he would get tough with China when he seems to view them so favorably from a geopolitical stance. The president probably erred when he made positive remarks about China himself, although it was probably long after the average person's attention span expired. It was as though Romney were conceding that issue to the president, and failling to promise anything different.
Romney's third big mistake was to try to claim the U.S. had bungled relations with Pakistan, that we should be friendlier to them. Pakistan, of course, harbored Osama bin Laden for years. The president didn't point that out, but when the moderator asked Romney to expand on this question, Romney's answer made it sound like he didn't know his own mind on Pakistan, since he portrayed it as a failed state run by the ISI, so it wasn't clear why the U.S. should be friendlier to them. Romney looked unsure, and he remained unsure until his next to last statement, when he went on a rant about jobs.
That was his fourth big mistake, since that clearly wasn't about foreign policy and was intended solely to hit the president when he had no time to respond. Both closing statements from both candidates were smarmy and forgettable.
The president clearly won by having command of his facts, by sounding more measured and balanced, and by not having anything he could be called out on. Imagine any other time in U.S. history when the big story for foreign policy in a presidential campaign was the death of four diplomats. The very fact that the Republicans didn't have anything more to hit Obama with showed how well the nation's foreign policy has gone since Obama has been in charge (and also reinforces the question of who exactly organized the attack).
Romney did not confront the president because he wanted to come off as peaceable and close that gap with women voters, but not offering a fundamentally different view than Obama made his candidacy seem rather pointless.
If people vote on foreign policy, then Obama has won the election. Unfortunately, nobody seems to believe that.