As I expected, Romney brought Moderate Mitt to this debate. Practically the first word out of his mouth was "peace" -- and throughout, he stressed that he wanted to foster peace. In fact, he had a simple two-track message, peace/strength. And I do think, taking his performance as a solo, that he hit his core objectives: he was 1) moderate Mitt, and 2) versed Mitt, reeling off for-show nuances like the power hierarchy in Pakistan, and rattling off 4- and 5-point plans and systematic rebuttals. . Oh, and as always, 3) Dominating Mitt, talking over everyone. Objective 4) was to paint a weak Obama, and that one didn't go so well.
One thing Romney did well --advancing his image as a peacemaker not a warmonger -- was deliver firm one-word answers to "should we" questions. Should we divorce Pakistan? No. Should we have propped up Mubarek? No. Should we take more decisive military action in Syria (beyond arming the 'right' rebels)? No.
On the peace front, the Etch-A-Sketch was in full shake. Now, Mitt is the one pushing economic aid in the Muslim world, using sweet persuasion to defuse extremism, fostering a new ally in Syria, rebuilding a relationship with Pakistan. He even had the chutzpah to suggest that he was the one more likely to bring about a Israeli-Palestinian settlement. He portrayed China as a potential partner, implying they'd just brush off being labeled a currency manipulator.
So Romney could not be wiped off the stage. But Obama brought his A-game, and trumped him on fundamentals, effectively rebutting every charge of weakness, coming off every inch the seasoned, tested leader, and, crucially, puncturing some of Romney's most enduring lies, effectively calling Romney a liar to his face ("that's his biggest whopper'; "you keep trying to airbrush history"). The key points on which he gave the lie: 1) that he had somehow been slow or timid about building an effective sanctions regime -- he spelled out that it was painstaking work that required the cooperation of all major powers ("we've been able to mobilize the world"); 2) that he had ever gone on an apology tour; 3) that Romney advocated federal funding for the auto industry bailouts; and 4) that he (Obama) had let China roll over the U.S. on trade policy.
In the first exchange or two, Obama had me worried a little, because he addressed himself to Hawkish Mitt without appearing to notice that Moderate Mitt had taken over the vocal chords. I feared a reprise of the first debate, with Obama trying to debate a Mitt who wasn't there. But he adjusted soon enough, and just as I'd fantasized, commenced saluting the on-stage Mitt repeatedly for effectively endorsing his own policies before pivoting to highlight the contrast with Mitts Past.*
I don't know if Obama will get a poll bump. Romney performed well. But Obama was every inch the commander-in-chief. And he pierced the veil of the challenger's bogus attacks on his alleged weakness.
I am indulging, btw, in a review of performance. On substance, I was sickened as usual by the pander contest with regard to Israel. I was disturbed that Obama said Iran has to stop its "nuclear program "rather than its nuclear weapons program. I think it's a sorry comment on the terms of our political discourse that there was no challenge or disagreement regarding drone warfare. It is ridiculous, too, that Obama can effectively claim success in Afghanistan without challenge when our efforts there are pretty close to collapse. But on all these substantive matters, Romney and the advisers he relies on are so many orders of magnitude worse than Obama that for practical purposes I accept the theater on its own terms.
*Reflecting this shift to attacking the Mitt that was there: early on, Obama attacked preemptively, giving Romney the opportunity to rebut at length -- in direct contradiction to the strategy that a James Fallows reader saw in the second debate and expected Obama to repeat, which was to attack only in counterpunch. Later, though, as he began responding to what Romney actually said, Obama did time his most devastating rebuttals and attacks properly, getting the last word, e.g., re the Detroit bailout, "You were clear you wold not provide government assistance."