The presidential debates are over, and Mitt Romney is within touching distance of the White House. Barack Obama was the better candidate – just – in last night’s third and final presidential debate, on the attack and with his trademark eloquence restored. But he needed to deliver a knockout blow to Mitt Romney, and failed. Everyone knows Obama is great with words. What is not entirely clear to voters is that Mitt Romney isn’t evil. As it turned out, Romney came across as moderate, articulate and well-informed- and a plausible commander-in-chief. The next election may very well be his.

A snap CNN Poll called it 48-40 for Obama, wider than the 37-33 of the second debate but a far cry from the 71-10 victory Romney was granted in the first debate. The debate was on foreign policy and Romney’s tactic seemed to be holding Obama in a boxer’s clinch, agreeing with him on Syria and Iran. Obama’s strategy was to portray Romney as out of his depth, and a bit of an extremist. Perhaps the most memorable of the night was when Obama fought back on his defence cuts with his line saying ‘we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed’. That got a quiet laugh from the hall, but would it resonate in the homes of an America worried about defence cuts? Or with military families who know that the marines do, in fact, still use bayonets?

Obama may have had the best lines, but Romney had the best ammo – mainly drawn from Obama’s record. One of his best lines was denouncing Obama for his ‘apology tour’.

‘Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East – by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region – then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, 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.’

Obama had no answer to that. Later, he tried to weave his ‘forward, not back’ theme into the debate:

‘Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognise that al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda. In the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because – you know – the Cold War’s been over for 20 years. 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.’

But like Cameron at the Tory conference, the impact of the words was dampened by the records. It’s hard to talk about economic recovery where none is in evident. Obama said that Assad’s days are numbers; but he said that 12 months ago and 30,000 more have died. He spoke with steely resolve about stopping a nuclear Iran – but that nuclear programme is proceeding apace.

When Obama spoke about going forward not back then Romney was able to quote the record:

‘I couldn’t agree more about going forward, but I certainly don’t want to go back to the policies of the last four years. [They] have seen incomes in America decline every year for middle income families, now down $4,300 during your term… When you came to office 32m were on food stamps. Today, 47m are on food stamps. When you came to office: just over $10 trillion in debt. Now: $16 trillion in debt. It hasn’t worked. It’s just a tragedy – for a nation so prosperous as ours – that the last four years have been so hard.’

The bar was higher for Obama: he has had four years as a commander-in-chief so he was expected to do well The test for Romney was whether he could sound like a man in charge of a military, and a superpower’s foreign policy. He passed. Obama’s mission was to portray Romney as a bellicose ingénue. He failed.

When asked by this morning’s CNN snap poll if they could see either candidate as a commander-in-chief, Obama won by just 63-60. Not much of a margin for someone who actually has done the job for four years. Asked if the debate made voters more or less likely to vote for the candidate, Romney won by 47-32.

I’d say the three debates can be seen as, overall, a net win for Romney because Obama was unable to claw back ground he lost in the first debate. “Attacking me is not an agenda,” said Romney – a good line because Obama’s biggest single problem has been his failure to explain just what he’d do with four more years. With both candidates on 47pc in the polls, and the race still a toss-up in Florida, Ohio and Nevada, Romney still has everything to play for. With just two weeks until the election, he is closer than ever to the presidency.

Tags: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, US politics