10:50 p.m. E.T.
Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the election.
Style: Assertive and heated, choosing to attack his opponent in almost every answer, belittling Romney’s lack of hands-on national security experience. More intense and sour than sunny and buoyant, although projected gravitas. Split screen expressions as Romney talked were tense and primed, simultaneously suggesting worry about the battle and dismissiveness of his opponent. At times, acted more like the underdog than a frontrunner.
Substance: Sure of himself at every step, proud to flaunt his expertise, authority, and intel. Displayed as thorough a knowledge of Romney’s past statements as of his own record. Owned the killing of Osama bin Laden with confident leadership, bolstered by an intimate anecdote about 9/11 justice.
His worst moment: Directed a series of early answers more to foreign policy elites than to the lay debate TV audience.
His best moment: Mocked Romney with a first-rate, rehearsed zinger: “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.”
The main thing: Tried all evening to tease out for America the patent contradictions he sees starkly in Romney’s past statements, but could not cast them in sharp enough relief to break through for the non-expert viewer. Efforts to make Romney seem unpresidential and unprepared failed to rattle his opponent, but did produce a series of rhetorical moments that will get television replays. Still haunted by his Denver failure, he stayed hyped up throughout, pleasing his base. Significantly stronger on points, but less likely than his rival to have his performance impact the outcome of the race.
Style: Began the evening awkwardly, with a halting introduction, but shook off his jitters and settled into a low-key, mild Denver Mitt mode, with a pleasant, conversational tone. Stayed calm and collected, although he often rambled. Avoided complaining about the rules and moderator decisions, even when he was champing to do so.
Substance: Demonstrated a surface fluency with all topics covered, but didn’t project any depth or delineate a worldview contrast from his rival’s. Democrats will fact check Romney for days, infuriated by his lack of specifics, shifting positions, and vague statements. His swing-and-a-miss on the Benghazi controversy in the prior debate left him with his bat motionless on his shoulder when the moderator brought up the matter directly
His worst moment: Gave his usual rambling, confusing, defensive answer regarding the auto bailout, kind of a problem when the issue is hurting him in Ohio — and losing the Buckeye State could cost him the election.
His best moment: Pivoted without cause or penalty to an extended plug for his five-point economic plan, the litany that has helped fuel his rise.
The main thing: Achieved his ongoing goal of appearing to be an acceptable alternative for American voters. Was determined not to let the President bait him into the sort of titanic clash that characterized the previous debate — and/but didn’t ruffle when challenged. Performance will energize his own base for sure, even if he expressed agreement with the President on numerous occasions. If his task was to remain calm and present himself to the electorate as a reasonable, peace-seeking, credible, centrist, sure-handed commander-in-chief, he seemed to clear the bar for at least some undecideds. Completed the trifecta of appearing as the President’s semiotic equal in every debate.