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.
Also, the debate happened during Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and Monday Night Football. So the television viewership for this debate was probably smaller as well compared to the other debates.
The campaigns ground game of turning out voters might play a far bigger role than Monday nights debate about foreign policy, which is far less important to voters than the economy.
And polls indicate the economy is a strength for Romney, who shifted the discussion at one point to his five-point economic plan. The candidates talked about class sizes, unemployment and even mentioned Medicaid.
Obama made sure to mention the killing of Osama bin Laden and suggested Romney wouldnt have done the same thing.
Knowing bin Ladens death was Obamas strong suit, Romney mentioned it first to take the oomph out of the issue for the president, congratulating Obama on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.
Obama didnt treat Romney as kindly.
Im glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after al-Qaida, Obama said. But I have to tell you that, you know, 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.
But Romney repeatedly battled back when Obama said al-Qaida was being demolished.
Weve watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see al-Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in, Romney said. And and theyre throughout many nations in the Middle East.
Later, Romney said Obama had failed to label China a currency manipulator. Obama disagreed with Romneys approach and noted the challenger had opposed his administration when it fought China in a trade dispute over tires.
NO CUBA TALK
Foreign trade was barely mentioned. Despite the 50th year anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, there was no discussion of Cuba policy.
Obama stayed on message, noting that his administration backed the removal of Libyas despot without the loss of American troops. He also suggested Romney would want to keep more troops in Iraq, a war that Obama brought to an end.
Obama also accused Romney of considering Russia not al-Qaida as a top threat. Romney said Obama was twisting his words.
Romney, in turn, criticized the presidents deal, struck with Congress, that could trim $500 billion from the defense budget over a decade. Obama said the cuts wouldnt happen, but he didnt specify how they would be avoided.
Staying on offense, Obama criticized Romney for wanting to boost defense spending in a time of deficits.
Romney said he was trying to keep America strong and he said Obama has weakened the nations relations with Israel especially over Iran.
Obama disagreed sharply and said Romney couldnt show any real policy differences.
Im glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that were taking, Obama said. There have been times, Governor where it sounded like you thought that youd do the same things we did, but youd say them louder and somehow that that would make a difference.
But whether points like that will make a difference in the presidential race is yet to be seen.