The issue was teed up for Mitt Romney from the get-go at Monday nights foreign-policy debate: What happened when four foreign-service workers were killed in Libya?
Was it an intelligence failure? Was it a policy failure? moderator Bob Schieffer asked. Was there an attempt to mislead people about what really happened?
The answer to the first two questions is probably yes. The last question, about misleading the American people, is being examined on Capitol Hill, where the Benghazi attacks are widely seen as an embarrassment for the Obama Administration.
But Romney didnt say any of that.
Instead, the Republican challenger rattled off a litany of problems in the Middle East from the fading hopes of the Arab Spring to the struggle of women in public life to the Bashar Assad regimes killing of an estimated 30,000 civilians in Syria.
Then he mentioned Benghazi. But only briefly.
We see in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against against our people there, four people dead, Romney said.
That was it. Opportunity missed.
Thats how much of the night went for Romney, who tacitly tried to blame Obama for much of the chaos in the Middle East. But when he had a shot to take, Romney didnt at first.
And when Romney had a chance to draw clear distinctions with Obama, he often didnt or couldnt when it came to handling Iran, Egypt or Syria.
What you just heard Governor Romney said is he doesnt have different ideas. And thats because were doing exactly what we should be doing, Obama said during a discussion about Syria.
But Romney didnt need to win Monday nights debate.
And the president probably won, but he probably needed a far bigger win to change the trajectory of the race. He didnt score the type of knockout that Romney did during the first debate.
So Obama, who started to close the gap after the second debate, is likely to still trail in the polls in battleground states like Florida, albeit narrowly.
A sign Obama was behind: He went on the attack early and often with one-liners and barbs. Romney held his own, but its tougher to score on defense.
But, as with his previous debate performances, Obama didnt lay out new policies as much as challenge Romney to come up with better ones.
NOT AN AGENDA
Attacking me is not an agenda, Romney said. Attacking me is not talking about how were going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East, and take advantage of the opportunity there, and stem the tide of this violence.
Obama said Romney wasnt clear in his statements, was reckless. And the president made sure to tie Romney to Obamas still-unpopular predecessors, who went to war with Iraq and presided over the economic collapse.
Hes praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody whos who shows great wisdom and judgment, Obama said.
Despite the presidents sharper edge, its unclear how much this last debate will affect the race especially in Florida, where at least 800,000 people have already voted by absentee ballots and where polls show a small portion of voters are undecided.