BOCA RATON, Fla. -- President Barack Obama invoked his commander in chief credentials -- and some withering zingers -- at the Monday debate to wrestle Mitt Romney to the ground.
Romney was an able competitor, but it turns out that Romney and Obama agreed more than they disagreed when it comes to foreign policy -- which left Obama free to portray Romney as a man of the past, not the future.
As soon as Romney pledged not to cut military spending (incorrectly implying that was an Obama proposal -- something he has done before) Obama pounced, painting Romney as woefully uninformed about how a modern military measures its strike force.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works," Obama said. "You -- you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
"And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities."
Obama caught an enormous break when Romney decided not to pressure him over the Libya controversy where four Americans died in a Sept. 11 attack -- which was seen as Obama's biggest problem going into the third and final debate at Lynn University.
Moderator Bob Schieffer brought it up as the first question, bluntly asking if the Obama administration had an intelligence failure or attempted to "mislead people about what really happened."
Romney made a strategic decision to take a different course -- to downplay Libya and try instead to preempt the frequent Obama brag about hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," said Romney, who said he would put in place a "robust strategy" to deal with Islamic extremists. That gave Obama an opening to give Romney a lecture on what "I've learned as commander in chief."
Romney tried to inoculate himself when he told Obama "attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East." Guessing correctly that Obama would hit home over a clumsy assessment he made about Russia, he said he did not "wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia."
But Obama seemed to come in with a game plan that Romney could not outgame.
Let me go back to Obama's put downs of Romney as a throwback. Obama delivered a line that sounded canned. But no matter. He made his point when talking about the threat of al-Qaida, linking it to that comment Romney once made about Russia being a major threat.
"And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years. But, governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama said.
This debate, in contrast to last week's at Hofstra University, was far more civil. Having the rivals seated at a table helped. Not having to worry about stagecraft made the debate less raucous.
But Romney did not see around corners for the traps Obama had set. When he attacked Obama on Israel -- for not visiting the nation while president, a complaint that has been oft made by a segment of Jewish voters -- Obama was ready.
"When I went to Israel, I did not take donors," Obama said, shrinking Romney's summer trip to Israel. "I didn't attend fund-raisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself on the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
I was on that trip with Obama, and unlike Romney's summer trip, Obama did seek to see for himself the threats Israel faced everyday, traveling to Sderot near the border. Obama said at the debate, "I saw families there who showed me there where missiles had come down near their children's bedroom."
I remember vividly seeing the spent missiles on display.
Said Obama, wrapping it up, "so that's how I've used my travels."