President Barack Obama lost the first debate by essentially conceding it. For those who score like boxing judges, the president may have won on points in the second debate. But to most voters, the contest was more akin to a draw.
Mitt Romney has closed the gap by appealing to moderate voters and middle-class families. It is a function of our election process that candidates win primary elections by appealing to partisan voters, then those same candidates struggle to reconcile those positions with the views of most other Americans.
Romney's success has meant that the election has become a referendum on Obama's record.
The stakes Monday night, then, were huge in the final presidential debate before the Nov. 6 election.
There were reasons to believe that the foreign policy debate would be a good place for Obama to expose Romney. The Republican candidate bungled a seemingly harmless visit to the Olympics by offending the host country, England, one of the greatest allies in our nation's history. Leaked videos showed Romney suggesting that the Palestinians have no authentic interest in pursuing peace with Israel.
Critics of the Obama administration have maintained that the White House was not initially forthright with the American people about the circumstances of the attack in Benghazi that claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Romney's efforts to capitalize on Benghazi have ranged from ill-timed, coming too soon after the attack, or ill-played, as in the second debate when the president responded that he had described the episode as a terrorist attack the day after it happened.
Obama needed to demonstrate that Romney is not ready to step into the role of leader of the free world. By and large, he did not. The president spoke with greater authority, but Romney demonstrated sufficient command to engage Obama on an equal footing.
Both realized that the nuances between their views on foreign policy will matter little to voters in two weeks. As a result, each repeatedly tried to shift the conversation to the economy in the U.S., the issue that will drive voters to the polls.
Romney's rhetoric has sent fact-checkers into hyper-drive, but he has successfully blurred his policies enough to mitigate Democratic attempts to cast his platform as an attack on the middle and working classes. That is why the presidential race remains a dead heat two weeks from Election Day.