WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney clashed last night in a debate over foreign affairs that often turned back to the economy at home in the United States, analysts said.
Sitting side by side, Romney and Obama toned down the combativeness and aggressiveness of their last debate at Hofstra University, but Obama went on the attack even as Romney often agreed with his positions, the analysts said.
Notably, Romney chose not to launch a major attack on Obama for his handling of the terrorist assault on the U.S. embassy in Libya that led to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three others. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have made the issue central to their criticism of Obama's leadership.
John J. Pitney Jr., professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., said Romney appeared as reasoned and moderate as possible, avoiding the kind of attacks many on the right would have liked to have seen Monday night. "Instead," Pitney said, "he was trying to scrape up the remaining undecided voters."
Pitney said that reach for undecided voters included the candidates' pivot to the economy. "Americans really don't care that much about most foreign policy issues," he said. "That's why both candidates moved to the economic issues whenever they could."
At other times, they minced no words. Romney attacked Obama as a "weak" leader who had failed to shape the post-Arab Spring world, and Obama accused Romney of being "all over the map" with shifting and confusing policy pronouncements.
"What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map," Obama said.
"What we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for the region," Romney said. He accused Obama of going on an "apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness."
Romney Monday night had to appear presidential and knowledgeable about the complexities of diplomacy, international relations and dangerous countries and leaders, experts said.
"He showed he's knowledgeable, but I don't think he showed he had any concrete different ideas about what to do," said Jordan Tama, an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service. "It was less about policy issues, and more about Obama has not led effectively."
Pitney noted that Romney used many facts and figures, offering details about countries viewers had "never heard of."
For Obama, the stakes were to maintain his energy and edge, and demonstrate his hard-earned experience of the past four years as commander-in-chief amid unexpected and changing conditions.
"Obama showed he's steady," said Tama. "He comes across as being a steady, strong leader, and I think he did in this debate."
Bohemia political consultant Michael Dawidziak said Obama may have miscalculated some in the early part of the debate. "Obama started off attacking Romney's foreign policy as if he was the incumbent. Brilliant," said Dawidziak, who works primarily for Republicans. "But then he let Romney shift the debate to the economy and engaged -- ugh," Dawidziak said.
In the end, Obama may have salvaged what advantage he has on foreign policy, analysts said, but Romney did not appear to have hurt himself.
Obama's foreign policy advantage has largely dissolved over the course of the debates -- dropping from an 8-point lead before the first debate in Denver to a 3-point lead now, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released over the weekend.