Obama-Romney Final Debate: What the Pundits Are Saying

Presidential Debate Obama Point - H 2012
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Presidential Debate Obama Point - H 2012

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow criticized the GOP candidate for moving away from his previous positions, while Fox's Steve Hays said Obama crossed the line from "aggressive and critical to downright disrespectful."

President Obama and Mitt Romney faced off in their third and final debate Monday night.

The event, held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS' Face the Nation, with the questions focused on foreign policy, including Libya, Afghanistan and China, but also touched on domestic topics including the economy.

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With the previous two debates a draw -- Romney was overwhelmingly declared the winner of the first, while Obama took the second -- who did the pundits think won Monday night's showdown?

CNN’s panel largely considered Obama the victor “on points,” but varied when it came to what the debate meant for the election. They also focused on Romney’s move to the center throughout the debate, with David Gergen noting Romney “attacked the president from the left.”

This was a version of what mitt Romney did in the first debate. Romney surprised Obama in the first debate by being more centrist,” said CNN’s Fareed Zakaria “Except this time Obama was ready. He knew how to effectively counter this.”

Gloria Borger continued that train of thought on CNN.

“If there were a word cloud over Mitt Romney’s head tonight, it would have been peace….Mitt Romney said unequivocally troops out of Afghanistan by 2014,” though he previously he’d declined to set a definitive pull out date for the country.

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Democratic strategist James Carville wasn’t impressed with Romney’s energy.

“It seems like someone gave Romney the same drug someone gave the president before the first debate,” he said.

Fellow democrat Van Jones said on CNN  Romney “did not pass the Comander in Chief test.”

“He was sweating, Nixonian style,” Jones said. "He changed his positions…. On Iraq. He changed his position on Afghanistan.”

But former President George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer disagreed with the democrats on CNN’s panel, saying even if the president “was more aggressive” than Romney, and if one could argue Obama “won on points,” the American people would not particularly care about the debate, because they are focused on jobs, not foreign policy

Echoing the polls, MSNBC's pundits mostly agreed that the final round went to Obama, with many commenting on Romney's strategy to mostly agree with the president's policies on various topics.

"How can he get away with running from his previous heartfelt beliefs?" criticized MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "I believe it's a character issue, and I find it disheartening." She added: "We're going to see if this soulless shape shifting has a cost."

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Her network colleague Al Sharpton agreed, pointing to the candidates' remarks related to the war in Afghanistan.

"People can accept you changing your mind, but not at the risk of my behind," he said. "We're talking about war. They are in Afghanistan now. .... [Romney] is for agenda equality in the Middle East but not here in the U.S. He is for democracy over there, but voter identification here. It's schizophrenia."

Echoed Chris Matthews: "How can a president be so nimble and flexible, a true hawk on Afghanistan, and then basically be the same guy you're running against? How do you do that in good conscience?"

MSNBC's Ed Schultz said he thinks Romney's strategy will pose a problem for right-win conservatives.

"The ring wing will cause problems for Romney: We don't know this guy, how can we trust him?" he said.

But Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, also on MSNBC, disagreed.

"Romney left this debate tonight fundamentally agreeing with Obama on foreign policy on issue after issue, and I think it was effective," he said. "He demonstrated circumspection and cautiousness, and those are the things that people are looking for."

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Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly, meanwhile, questioned whether Romney "struggled" to put distance between his and Obama's plans or if that was a calculated strategy. She also noted each candidate's body language.

"Obama sat staring at Romney, and many wondered if he was made," she said. "Romney was smiling most of the night and seeming, as Obama put it, like a happy warrior."

Fox's Brit Hume, meanwhile, applauded Romney's performance.

"Romney came across as a plausible commander-in-chief," he said. "It would be damaging if any questions had been raised that he didn't know anything about, but I didn't detect any such moment. He was smooth and fluid. I don't think it hurt that they didn't have any broad disagreements. I do think he did effectively use the economy and the weakness of the economy as weapons in the debate."

As for Obama, "I wouldn't describe him as having a mean look. I would describe him as a man looking for the opportunity to strike. Romney had a more benign default expression -- a slight smile, not smug -- and I wonder if that was not more attractive because that's the thing that matters."

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Fox's Chris Wallace also praised Romney, saying if he had been on a deserted island for the past several years, he would have thought the Republican candidate was the incumbent.

"I would have thought that Romney was the president trying to protect a lead and Obama was the challenger desperately trying to catch up," he said, adding that "Romney was clearly not taking the bait and getting into a fight with Obama."

Steve Hays, also on Fox News, said Obama crossed a line in the first 10 minutes "between aggressive and critical to downright disrespectful. He told Romney, 'I'm glad you recognize al-Qaeda as a threat.' Well, is there anyone who doesn't recognize al-Qaeda as a threat? He crossed the line and risked being viewed as unpresidential."

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi called the entire debate a "big hug because I think that's what Romney was doing. He decided to hug Obama on policy after policy. ... The president was very aggressive, and it's hard to win a debate if you're not in aggressive mode. They switched roles [from the first debate], and I think Obama had the edge."

On Twitter, Ann Coulter was harsh in her assessment, writing: "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." The Week's Marc Ambinder questioned Romney’s move to the center for this debate, tweeting I get Romney’s strategy but he may forfeited too much. A lot of people watched.” CNN's Piers Morgan tweeted Obama ”narrowly won by by a musket or three. But Romney did well too, and will have reassured people he's not a gun-toting, neocon cowboy.”