Debates are high-pressure, high-risk events, and they often offer low rewards. A candidate's first goal is not to win the debate, but rather not to lose — to do no harm to the campaign. A simple misstep can change the course of an election.
The first debate was a clear win for former Gov. Romney, who appeared more interested and engaged than President Obama, who appeared aloof, disinterested, and arrogant. The difference in their performances — each standing at a lectern — enabled Romney to gain momentum in the polls.
In their second meeting, they prowled around stage, often circling each other like prizefighters. The debate was a draw.
The final debate, held this week and focusing on foreign policy, was conducted with both candidates seated at a table next to each another.
The president had an automatic advantage by virtue of his position. He has access to daily national security briefings and holds the position of power for which the challenger is auditioning. When voters think commander in chief, a picture of the current president comes to their minds.
Romney's goal for the debate was for voters to be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative when the debate was done.
Can I see Romney as commander in chief?
Is he knowledgeable and credible regarding foreign policy?
Do I trust him to make the right decisions about sending our men and women into battle?
The answer to all three questions was yes.
Romney maintained his composure while being attacked by the president, provided detailed answers and pivoted successfully to the area of domestic economic growth.
Obama finished his first question by taking a swipe at Romney. "Your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East," he told Romney.
Romney responded that his strategy would be "a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own."
Obama kept up the attack. "Gov. Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago, when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida," he said.
When Romney attempted to set the record straight, Obama interrupted, appearing less presidential than Romney.
When asked about whether he would send troops into Syria, Romney responded: "I don't think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. I don't anticipate that in the future."
Romney pivoted later in the debate from foreign policy to domestic policy — an area where he is stronger than Obama. "For us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong," he said. "And that begins with a strong economy here at home. Unfortunately, the economy is not stronger."
When Obama denied he had made an "apology tour," Romney ceded no ground.
"Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations . . . you said that America had been dismissive and derisive.
"You said that, on occasion, America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
As he closed, Obama argued that a Romney presidency would be a throwback to prior, unsuccessful presidencies.
Romney, in contrast, offered a clear, positive vision of the future under his leadership, not only on foreign policy, but also on domestic policy.
"America's going to come back," Romney concluded, "and for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We've got to do that in Washington. Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back, and will work with good Democrats and good Republicans to do that."
Romney delivered what he had to in the last debate; Obama delivered too much bluster, much too late.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman is the co-author, along with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of the book "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours." Read more reports from Jackie Gingrich Cushman — Click Here Now.