BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It started off as a foreign policy debate, but domestic issues soon took center stage at the third and final presidential debate Monday, an event that showcased fewer fireworks and much tamer exchanges between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, who are running virtually neck-and-neck in the campaign's final two weeks.
Romney and Obama, who went after each other aggressively in their showdown last week, took very different approaches Monday and it said much about how each views the race.
Romney resisted going on the offensive, passing on an opening question about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Libya that his fellow Republicans have been using to question the administration's veracity. Romney himself had gone after Obama on the issue in last week's debate, but on Monday Romney remained measured in his responses, even congratulating Obama on his biggest foreign policy success -- killing Osama bin Laden -- before Obama could raise the issue.
It was Obama who initiated the attacks and he remained on the offensive throughout much of the 90-minute session at Lynn University. The president's laconic performance in his first debate had changed the dynamics of the race, virtually erasing his advantage in the polls and he clearly wasn't going to risk losing further ground.
Unlike the earlier debates, Monday's produced no clear winner, allowing both sides to claim victory.
"Romney's primary job was to make Americans comfortable with the idea of Romney as commander-in-chief," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told The Washington Examiner. "On that front, mission accomplished. Romney looked and sounded presidential. Obama came out swinging and Romney deflected well."
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, noted the sitting president's natural advantage in international affairs.
"His greater depth of knowledge showed on military spending, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iran," Jillson said. "Still, this is a tight race and will be decided on the economy."
In a year when the debate moderators became as much of an issue as the presidential candidates' own performances, CBS News' Bob Schieffer gave Romney and Obama ample time to address the questions and each other, but at one point had to pointedly push them back onto the evening's main topic, foreign policy.
Throughout the often detailed exchanges, Obama accused Romney of being "all over the map" on foreign policy, at one point suggesting that Romney lacked an understanding of what a modern military required. A commander in chief, Obama said, must speak clearly to the world and act decisively.
"I looked at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe," the president said, "and I made those decisions."
Romney appeared less sure-footed at the outset, but gained momentum as the debate veered to the U.S. economy. America's ability to maintain world peace depends on its ability to stabilize its own economy, Romney said, and Obama had failed to achieve that in his first term.
"It begins with a strong economy here at home and unfortunately the economy is not stronger," Romney said.
The debate was far more subdued than the first two encounters between the candidates and it may have generated less interest, not only because it was about foreign affairs instead of pocketbook issues, but because it was being televised at the same time as a baseball playoff game and Monday Night Football.
"The biggest problem," American Enterprise Institute foreign policy scholar Danielle Pletka told The Examiner, "is it's boring."