What Happened at the Last Presidential Debate

Twenty-four debates ago, the nation began a democratic journey, a live-television experiment in primetime controlled chaos, filled with flubs, one-liners, crosstalk and body shots. Now it is all coming to an end.

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Rick Wilking / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk during the final U.S. presidential debate, in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22, 2012

0 minutes. Twenty-four debates ago, on May 5, 2011, the nation began a democratic journey together, a live-television experiment in prime-time controlled chaos, filled with flubs, one-liners, cross talk and body shots. Remember Newt Gingrich’s mission to Mars? The $10,000 bet? Ron Paul? The teeth of Joe Biden? The sleepy President? Rick Perry’s third government department? Neither did he. Now it is all coming to an end, appropriately enough in Boca Raton, Fla. Bob Schieffer of CBS News welcomes the combatants and lays out the rules. The candidates meet onstage and shake hands. They say nostalgia is only for the past. They are wrong.

4 minutes. The first question is for Mitt Romney: Why did he say the Middle East was unraveling before our eyes after the attack in Libya? Romney opens with a joke. “Mr. President, it’s good to be with you again. We were together at a humorous event a little earlier, and it’s nice to maybe be funny not this time on purpose,” Romney says. “We’ll see what happens.” We will.

5 minutes. Romney describes all the ways of unraveling: Civil war in Syria. Attack in Libya. “Al-Qaeda-type individuals” taking over northern Mali. Iran four years closer to a nuclear weapon. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney says. Then he adds, “We must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism,” and his time is up.

(MORE: Mark Halperin: Grading the Battle in Boca)

6 minutes. Barack Obama counters by listing his successes. End of war in Iraq. Planned transition from Afghanistan. Refocused fight against al-Qaeda. Liberated Libya. He says he will go after those who killed Americans in Libya and that Romney is not good. “I have to tell you that your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe,” Obama says. He’s wrong. He doesn’t really have to do anything.

8 minutes. “Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture, but my strategy is broader than that,” says Romney, which is more like ugly straightforward. Then he says, “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan,” even though he supported both invasions. Then he cites a study by a group of Arab scholars at the U.N. saying that more economic-development funds for more gender equality and education would prevent future conflict. If Romney had said any of this at one of his primary debates, he would have been booed from the hall. He closes by saying there is a “rising tide of chaos” and “tumult” in the Middle East.

10 minutes. Obama counters by saying that Romney keeps changing his positions and thinks Russia is the world’s No. 1 threat. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama says, a bit cute with his zinger. But the President presses on: “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.” He finishes by saying the Middle East needs “strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership.”

12 minutes. Romney clarifies by saying Russia is the No. 1 geopolitical foe but Iran is the No. 1 “national-security threat.” Then he pulls out his own verbal dart, in reference to Obama’s hot-mike moment with a Russian leader at a recent international summit. “I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election,’ ” zings Romney. “After the election he’ll get more backbone.”

14 minutes. No longer content to just repeat rehearsed talking points, the two men start talking over each other. The topic is the troubled Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, but it’s hard to follow. Romney seems right on the substance, but Obama more definitively says, “That’s not true,” so he probably wins on style.

15 minutes. Finally Schieffer asserts some order and asks a question about what the U.S. should do in Syria. Obama explains his position. Then Romney explains his position. They are the same position. Though Romney, who cited the U.N. a few minutes ago, suggests he would not have relied as much as Obama on the U.N.

21 minutes. Schieffer follows up. “Governor, can I just ask you, would you go beyond what the Administration would do?” Romney cites no policy differences but says he would lead in a more leaderly fashion. “This should have been a time for American leadership,” he says.

23 minutes. “What you just heard Governor Romney say is he doesn’t have different ideas,” says Obama. Romney does not try to respond.

24 minutes. Next question is on Egypt. Does Obama regret telling President Hosni Mubarak to go? “No,” says the President, and then he goes on to define the lines he has established with the new Egyptian government: Abide by treaty with Israel. Democratic elections. Protect religious minorities and women’s rights.

26 minutes. Once again, Romney says he agrees. Then he launches a campfire riff. “We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war,” he says. “That’s our purpose.” Romney follows this by saying Obama is failing in four dimensions. “Nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago,” he says.

29 minutes. The moderator sets a softball on the tee. What is America’s role in the world? Romney says, “America must lead,” and then changes topics to talk about the 23 million Americans struggling to get a job. He also attacks Obama for being silent during the Green Revolution in Iran. Obama was not silent. But he chose his words carefully.

(MORE: Obama, Romney Spar on Mideast Policy in Final Presidential Debate)

31 minutes. “America remains the one indispensable nation,” says Obama, though there are plenty of people around the world who would disagree. Then Obama launches into his own domestic-jobs riff, followed by another prepackaged zinger for Romney. “He’s praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment,” says Obama.

33 minutes. Here begins a long period of interrupting so the candidates can pummel each other with their stump speeches. Romney’s face is becoming shiny, as if the makeup artist did not do enough. And two strands of his hair are out of place. At one point Obama claims that Romney’s four-year tuition-free plan for high-achieving Massachusetts college students “happened before” Romney became governor. Obama is wrong. “You got that fact wrong,” says Romney.

38 minutes. Schieffer asks Romney about his plan for big increases in military spending. “Where are you going to get the money?” he asks. Romney doesn’t have an answer. “Come on our website. You’ll look at how we get to a balanced budget within eight to 10 years,” he says. You can try it yourself.

40 minutes. Obama says the Romney math doesn’t work. Romney says he has a lot of experience meeting budgets. Then Romney says the Navy is smaller now, in terms of ship count, than anytime since 1917. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” says Obama. This is both heedlessly condescending and funny.

45 minutes. Schieffer asks if the candidates would consider an attack by Iran on Israel to be the same as an attack on the United States. “America will stand with Israel,” says Obama, who then lists all the ways Iran is a weaker state now than when he came into office. “If I’m President of the United States — when I’m President of the United States — we will stand with Israel,” says Romney, before saying he would have put the sanctions in place earlier and would indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under the U.N. Genocide Convention for “genocide incitation.”

50 minutes. Obama says a recent New York Times report that direct talks were in the works with Iran is “not true.”

(MORE: Debate Finale: Romney Agrees with Obama, Says Give Peace a Chance)

52 minutes. Romney says again that America needs more strength in foreign policy and says Obama apologized for America. It is his best answer of the night, since he fluently rattles off all his stylistic criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy approach. He also says Obama went on an apology tour, a claim independent fact-checkers all rule false.

54 minutes. Citing the fact-checkers, Obama calls the apology thing a “whopper.” Then he says Romney invested in a Chinese company that invested in Iran, which wins some opposition researcher at Obama HQ in Chicago a gold star.

56 minutes. Romney explains his apology-tour dig by saying Obama was wrong to admit overseas that America had made mistakes. “You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations,” Romney said. “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.” The statement is full of patriotic vim but would not pass muster in high school history. America dictates to other nations all the time and has supported several dictators.

57 minutes. Obama delivers a prepared response about his affection for Israel.

58 minutes. Schieffer asks what the candidates would do if Israel called to say bombers were in the air on their way to Iran. Romney says he won’t answer hypotheticals and, besides, he as President would know before the bombers were in the air. Obama says Romney changes his positions on a whole bunch of stuff; he then tells the story of the daughter of a World Trade Center victim who found solace in the killing of Osama bin Laden.

63 minutes. Questions on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Romney says, “When I’m President, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014,” even though he has repeatedly said that setting deadlines for withdrawal gives an advantage to the enemy.

(MORE: Joe Klein: Obama Wins on Style and Substance)

66 minutes. Obama says that bringing troops home will “free up some resources to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools.” By “free up some resources” he means “put America further into debt to fund other projects.”

71 minutes. On drones, Romney once again supports the Obama efforts.

74 minutes. Question on China and trade sanctions. Obama says, “I have to say that Governor Romney criticized me for being too tough in that tire case, said this wouldn’t be good for American workers and that it would be protectionist.” Once again, he doesn’t have to say that.

79 minutes. Romney says again that he thinks China will blink and not start a trade war if he declares China a “currency manipulator” when he comes into office. Then he tells a story. “I was with one company that makes valves in process industries,” he says. Turned out valves were being made counterfeit overseas, and that was not fair.

81 minutes. “Well, Governor Romney is right,” says Obama. But he doesn’t mean it. Instead, he launches an attack on Romney for being affiliated with companies that did work overseas and for opposing his auto bailout. “If we had taken your advice, Governor Romney, about our auto industry, we’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China,” he says.

83 minutes. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Romney responds. “I’m a son of Detroit. I was born in Detroit. My dad was head of a car company. I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.” This is followed by one of those exchanges in which the candidates disagree on the facts. The topic: Romney’s position on the auto bailout.

85 minutes. Obama says Romney did not say he would provide help to the American auto industry. Romney points out, accurately, that he would have provided federal guarantees for the industry after a bankruptcy process. The real difference between the candidates is not whether the government should step in but at what point the government should step in, and with how much money. Both candidates say voters should check the record. You can do that here.

89 minutes. After some more squabbling, it’s time for closing statements. Each candidate looks right into the camera and does a good job. Both of their statements hit all their points. But if a voter still isn’t decided at this point, with just two weeks to go before the election, it is not at all likely that these statements will make a difference.

93 minutes. Schieffer brings it all to an end with words of wisdom. “As I always do at the end of these debates,” he says, “I leave you with the words of my mom, who said, ‘Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong.’ ” Amen.

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