The third presidential debate had a clear winner.
Moderator Bob Schieffer.
The longtime CBS newsman managed to keep the candidates pretty much on time and on topic — and likely will be the only journalist to moderate a presidential or vice presidential debate this year to emerge from the process without enduring withering criticism.
Perhaps Schieffer had an assist from the candidates.
Although this last presidential debate included its share of sniping from candidate to candidate, it lacked the drama and the fireworks of the first two.
In this Monday night showdown in Boca Raton, Fla., Republican challenger Mitt Romney spent a good part of the evening agreeing with the foreign policy of President Barack Obama. Time and again — on use of drones, on Egypt and elsewhere — Romney said he agreed with Obama's policies.
When Romney did take issue with Obama's foreign policy, the former Massachusetts governor said he would have done what Obama did – only sooner or more forcefully or, as Obama noted in a withering aside, "louder, as if that would have made a difference."
Indeed, Obama scored most of his points in talking about the way he and his administration approached the world. At no other time during this campaign has Obama appeared this self-assured and this, well, presidential.
Again and again during the debate, Obama summoned up sound bites that conjured up Old Glory unfurling.
"I think America has to stand with democracy," the president said about his response to demonstrations in Egypt.
At another point, Obama said: "America remains the one indispensable nation in the world."
Too often, Romney seemed flat-footed and out of his depth.
Sometimes, he tried to respond to Obama's criticism by reciting names and facts about countries around the world – without connecting them in anything that resembled a coherent narrative. At other times, he appeared almost petulant and complained that the president was being mean to him.
"Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney said early on – and then repeated a variation of the line later in the evening.
Most of the time, Romney just tried to change the subject back to jobs and the economy, where he felt more sure-footed and scored more successes.
In some ways, this a pity, because Romney began the debate on a provocative note – one that both took aim at Obama's greatest foreign policy success, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and separated him from the foreign policy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
Romney talked at the beginning of the evening about the complexity of the world and the threats to the America's interests and about how the United States needed to adopt a more nuanced approach to foreign policy.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said.
A little while later, he further separated himself from Bush's foreign policy by saying that he would not lead the country into any other adventures like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That was an intriguing moment – one in which the two candidates to be the leader of the free world could have discussed in a public forum the morality and effectiveness of the two wars that have consumed the past decade.
But the moment passed.
Obama slashed at the wavering nature of Romney's foreign policy statements over the past few months and years.
Romney gave an uneasy smile, disengaged from foreign policy discussions and dragged the conversation to the U.S. economy.
And another opportunity was lost.
So, who – other than Schieffer – won?
My gut tells me Obama, but it was close.
Obama benefitted from the fact that he seemed more assured about foreign policy and about using presidential power than Romney.
The timing also seemed to work in the president's favor. If we think of elections as a kind of sale, Obama had his two strongest debate performances closet to the point of purchase.
But that does not do full justice to Romney's achievement. Three weeks ago, his campaign seemed headed for an early autopsy.
These debates, though, brought him and his campaign back to life. If nothing else, Romney was able to use this time on the national stage to establish himself as a reasonable alternative to the president and a likable man – one who cares about this country and has thoughtful responses to its problems.
In short, Romney used the debates to close the stature gap with a sitting president – no small achievement.
This race started close and it will end close – in part because these debates did what they should do. They gave us clear glimpses of two gifted but flawed human beings who want to lead us.
But the debates are over, and now it's up to us.
John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
You can watch last night's presidential debate and the two previous meetings at C-SPAN's Debate Hub.
Krull is konfused.
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