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Debate: Obama wins with 'horses and bayonets' zinger

President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney at

President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney at the third and final debate. (Oct. 22, 2012) Credit: AFP / Getty Images

The final debate and now the final TV verdict -- who won the foreign policy fracas? Mr. Battleships and Bayonets? Or Mister Go the Website? Once again - and thankfully for the last time this political season -- the rules: This post isn't about ideology or who has the best-plan-to-save-the-economy plan.

This is all about who comes off best on TV, for it is TV, sayeth the wise political man (or woman -- we are also gender nonspecific here) that gets someone elected. Why else, continues this wise person, spend billions on TV ads in swing states?

Also, before we plunge in (did I say for last time? For the last time.) let's consider this other truthy truism: Debates really don't win presidential elections but debates sure can lose them. One more piece of wisdom -- it's much, much better to win a debate than lose one, but at this late stage, does it really matter? After all, beside that so-called undecided out there, everyone has already decided. Plus, I thought John Dickerson of CBS News raised a salient point last night -- to paraphrase, Mitt Romney didn't need to win last night anyway, because he made a strong showing the last two outings and even won the first; moreover, he thinks he's going to win on the economy anyway -- not on history lessons about battleships and bayonets.

So, to the factors, and once again -- please feel free to disagree. We are only stating opinions here, and yours is equally valid:

The smile factor: Yes, I usually begin with the tie factor, but even that feels incredibly trivial at this point; both ties were fine. Let's move on. Who had the best smile? Ah, the smile .?.?. the window to the soul on TV. Joe Biden's smile make him look like an unhinged late night TV show. Smiles (on TV) can communicate warmth, kindness, derision, rebuke, disgust, name-an-emotion. Get the smile wrong and you're (ummm) sunk like a battleship run through with a bayonet. Romney's smile all night long was a rictus -- a barely etched expression of discomfort from start to finish. Obama's was of the patient variety, which read, “I'll let you finish while you’re making a point that I will soon happily rebuke.”

Winner: Obama

The head position factor: As previously noted last week, the body language factor was huge in the Hofstra debate, because you had the whole body effect -- candidates striding the stage, pointing in the face off the other, or sitting on a high stool, like either he was comfortable -- or restrained. But that couldn't really happen within the confines of a small split-screen, so that both candidates had to use their head to convey what the body could not. Romney has been excellent at this factor in the last two debates -- his head invariably in what could almost be described as a righteous position. He just seems to know how to hold his head in a way that says Wannabe Commander-in-Chief. But confined to the small screen last night, he seemed to lose his head mojo. The head remained erect but rigid, and when certain tense moments -- especially during the crosswalk over the budget -- arose, he had the habit of bending down and scribbling something on a piece of paper. It looked like his attention had snapped, and gave the impression that POTUS was scoring at will. Obama held his head erect, pointed directly to the candidate -- and occasionally to Bob Schieffer when he wanted to catch his attention as if he just couldn't wait to make a point. That quick little head movement to Schieffer worked well because it snapped your attention away from Romney, and made Romney miss a beat too.

Winner: Obama

The zinger effect: This finally is the great secret weapon of any presidential debate -- that line that resonates for decades. The “I knew Jack Kennedy -- you are no Jack Kennedy.” Especially the: “There you go again .?.?." Romney had none of those last night, and you sort of wonder why. Those lines are mantras -- they may mean little but in the context of a debate become giants. They live long after we've forgotten everything else. Obama had a number of them: " .?.?. those who actually killed us." " .?.?. We've been to your website -- a number of times -- and we still don't get it." " .?.?. Every time you’ve been wrong." " .?.?. the big whopper." " .?.?. you've been all over the map." " .?.?. you're trying to airbrush history.” It was almost as if POTUS was road-testing these lines. Some were better than others, but all worked to his purpose of pounding the candidate on what he, the president, had the most going for him -- which is to say Anything Not to Do with the Economy. But our heads really snapped when this line cropped up: “You mention the Navy, and the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets .?.?. it's not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships.”  Boooyah! A real score, and the first time since -- probably 1916 -- that a presidential debate verged into discussion on horses and bayonets and battleships. Teddy Roosevelt would've immensely enjoyed this moment -- but demanded more battleships and bayonets nonetheless. If Obama wins the election, he has a lot of horses, bayonets and battleships to thank.

Winner: Obama

Overall winner: Of course you can see where I'm going here. The president had a good night -- in fact the best night of the three debates. He was confident and fluid; his language had power and resonance. In TV terms, he easily outpointed Romney. But a few words in support of Romney, too. Over these three debates -- in purely TV terms -- he did what he needed to do -- establish credibility, authority and a sense of command. He went head to head, body to body, mano a mano with the president and came out whole, arguably even more than whole. He won the first debate, did well in the second, and lost some - but certainly not all of his mojo last night. But he came out ahead from these three TV debates. What's that line about losing the battle and winning the war?) Now, please feel free to disagree.

Winner last night: Obama.

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