5 things we learned at the final debate

  • Foreign policy was theme of last debate, but economic issues also got attention
  • Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in sharp exchanges, but showdown less contentious overall
  • Obama played ‘commander-in-chief’ card to highlight foreign policy decisionmaking
  • Romney talked about vision for country without having to defend a foreign policy record

Boca Raton, Florida (CNN) — The third and final presidential debate proved to be a substantive, if not sharp, discussion on the major issues facing the nation as both candidates tried in earnest to persuade the small sliver of undecideds to vote for them.

While foreign policy was the overarching theme, it was no surprise that the domestic economy shared center stage as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each sought to score points on the No. 1 issue of this election.

In two weeks, the long and bitter campaign will come to a close — barring an election controversy — and Monday night’s debate will help frame the discussion in the closing days.

Reflecting on the 90-minute matchup in Florida, here are five takeaways:

1. Heated, but measured disagreements

The level of animosity between the two candidates was apparent but unlike last week, it was capped due in a large part to the debate format and setting.

It is much more difficult to bring a level of personal anger to a boiling point while seated at a table. Sitting on high chairs with the ability to walk freely on the stage seems to help fuel rage, while sitting together at a table appears to have a cooling affect.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depart the stage after the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday, October 22. The third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.
Romney and Obama greet each other at the end of the debate Monday night.Romney and Obama greet each other at the end of the debate Monday night.
Obama and Romney hug their wives on stage after the debate.Obama and Romney hug their wives on stage after the debate.
President Obama greets first lady Michelle Obama.President Obama greets first lady Michelle Obama.
Romney gestures beside his wife, Ann, on Monday.Romney gestures beside his wife, Ann, on Monday.
Romney and Obama participate in the debate moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.Romney and Obama participate in the debate moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
Obama makes a point on Monday. He criticized his opponent on a host of foreign policy issues -- claiming Romney had favored positions that would have hurt the United States.Obama makes a point on Monday. He criticized his opponent on a host of foreign policy issues — claiming Romney had favored positions that would have hurt the United States.
Romney gestures during the debate. The Republican nominee said Obama's foreign affairs policies have made the United States less respected and more vulnerable.Romney gestures during the debate. The Republican nominee said Obama’s foreign affairs policies have made the United States less respected and more vulnerable.
Obama listens during the final presidential debate.Obama listens during the final presidential debate.
Obama reacts to statements by Romney on Monday.Obama reacts to statements by Romney on Monday.
Romney emphasizes a point during the debate.Romney emphasizes a point during the debate.
Obama and Romney face off while Schieffer looks on.Obama and Romney face off while Schieffer looks on.
Obama answers a question Monday. Obama answers a question Monday.
Romney speaks during the debate.Romney speaks during the debate.
Monday's debate promised to be among the most-watched 90 minutes of the entire 2012 presidential campaign.Monday’s debate promised to be among the most-watched 90 minutes of the entire 2012 presidential campaign.
Schieffer listens to the candidates' responses during the debate.Schieffer listens to the candidates’ responses during the debate.
Obama looks to Schieffer while debating Romney.Obama looks to Schieffer while debating Romney.
Romney and Obama debate on stage. The final face-to-face showdown took place 15 days before the election.Romney and Obama debate on stage. The final face-to-face showdown took place 15 days before the election.
Romney listens as Schieffer speaks during Monday night's debate.Romney listens as Schieffer speaks during Monday night’s debate.
Obama makes a point during the debate.Obama makes a point during the debate.
Obama listens as Romney responds to a question Monday.Obama listens as Romney responds to a question Monday.
Obama and Romney greet each other as they join Schieffer on stage.Obama and Romney greet each other as they join Schieffer on stage.
Ann Romney, center, and other members of the Romney family take their seats.Ann Romney, center, and other members of the Romney family take their seats.
Schieffer appears on stage prior to the debate Monday. He is CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and has been the host of the Sunday morning discussion show Schieffer appears on stage prior to the debate Monday. He is CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent and has been the host of the Sunday morning discussion show “Face the Nation” since 1991.
Co-chairmen Frank Fahrenkopf, left, and Mike McCurry of the Commission on Presidential Debates address the audience at Lynn University.Co-chairmen Frank Fahrenkopf, left, and Mike McCurry of the Commission on Presidential Debates address the audience at Lynn University.
First lady Michelle Obama arrives for the debate.First lady Michelle Obama arrives for the debate.
Romney and his wife, Ann, sit backstage with their family before the start of Monday's debate with President Obama. It was the candidates' final showdown before Election Day on November 6. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.Romney and his wife, Ann, sit backstage with their family before the start of Monday’s debate with President Obama. It was the candidates’ final showdown before Election Day on November 6. See the best photos from the second presidential debate.
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Photos: The final presidential debatePhotos: The final presidential debate

Obama, Romney battle over foreign policy

Obama: We need ‘smart choices’ on China

Romney promises more jobs if elected

That’s not to say there were not prickly exchanges — OK, very prickly exchanges — or talking over one another during points of contention, but it rarely rose to the level where it appeared the boxing gloves were going to come out.

From Libya to Iran and Syria to China — and the economy — the candidates opined about challenges facing the nation in this last chance to reach an audience of tens of millions of voters. A colleague turned to me several times unprompted during exchange and said, “I wish all of the debates were like this one.”

2. It’s the economy, stupid

It was a debate about foreign policy, an important subject that plays second fiddle to the No. 1 issue on voter’s minds this election: the economy, the economy and the economy — OK, in addition to a handful of other domestic issues such as health care, taxes, education, and Social Security.

There was substantive discussion and disagreement on foreign policy during the face off, but as we noted earlier, the economy received a fair amount of air time.

Romney tried to convince voters the economy was a national security issue that has weakened America’s standing in the world. And when presented the opportunity, the Republican presidential nominee seized it to again present his five-point plan to revive the sluggish economy that includes creating training programs for workers to helping small businesses grow and thus create more jobs.

In turn, Obama highlighted his administration’s efforts at improving education, while criticizing Romney’s record on education and small business as governor of Massachusetts.

Hardly topics that can be classified as foreign policy, yet issues that are paramount to voters.

3. Commander-in-chief card

At strategic points throughout the night, Obama played the commander-in-chief card as a way to show that he has had to make the difficult decisions that only a president faces.

Romney: China’s interests are like ours

Romney on terror: Can’t kill our way out

Obama: President has to be clear

Obama, Romney spar over troops in Iraq

At the top of the debate: “Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe. And that’s what we’ve done over the last four years.” During a contentious exchange on foreign policy: “Here’s one thing I’ve learned as commander in chief.” And the closer: “As commander in chief, I will maintain the strongest military in the world, keep faith with our troops and go after those who would do us harm. But after a decade of war, I think we all recognize we’ve got to do some nation-building here at home, rebuilding our roads, our bridges and especially caring for our veterans who sacrificed so much for our freedom.”

Advantage Obama in terms of highlighting the trappings of his office.

But Romney also saw some benefit in not being commander in chief. He didn’t have to defend a record and was able to talk about his vision for the country without having to answer for any shortcomings.

4. America’s role in the world

My favorite topic of the night: It is a visionary question that allows a candidate to talk in big terms.

Of course, each candidate took the opportunity to use it to talk in political terms, but not before offering these words of hope — Romney: “I absolutely believe that America has a responsibility and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that make the world more peaceful.” Obama: “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America.”

Enough said. It was a presidential question, appropriate for the final presidential debate.

5. Closing arguments

It is now a race to November 6 as both candidates criss cross the country in search of votes from the small group of battleground states that will decide this election.

Obama wakes up in Florida on Tuesday and holds a rally before heading to Ohio for a campaign event with Vice President Joe Biden. Romney travels out West to join vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan for a campaign event in Las Vegas before flying to Colorado for an evening rally.

In the moments following the debate, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina was very clear about the political strategy in these final two weeks: “Persuading undecideds and turning out your vote.”

By no means did Messina lift back the curtain and provide insight that we did not already know, but it goes to show you that politics is a very basic game — the person with the most votes wins.

As for where exactly Obama will spend most of his time in these closing days, Messina would not commit to particular states but emphasized, “We are going to be very flexible where we go.”

Kevin Madden, Romney’s spokesman, noted that in addition to Nevada and Colorado, the former governor will also make stops in Ohio and Iowa in the coming days and plans to visit multiple swing states in the same day as part of the effort to turn out the vote.

If the election stays this tight heading into Election Day, will the traditional 48-hour closing candidate barnstorm turns into 72-hour tours of the nine battleground states?