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Analysis

Final presidential debate: Much ado about very little

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BOCA RATON, Fla. — The third and final presidential debate came to a close Monday night, bringing little clarity to a long and confusing campaign.

Those who were undecided are likely to be still in the dark after 90 minutes in which it was sometimes difficult to tell what the topic under discussion actually was.

What is clear is that President Barack Obama came prepared to fight. He was combative and assertive, frequently interrupting his opponent, at times seeming openly scornful of Mitt Romney's statements.

"Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true," Obama said at one point, showing the kind of mettle that was so conspicuously absent from his first debate performance in Denver.

Obama sought to paint his opponent as inexperienced and reckless. He pointed to some of Romney's gaffes on foreign policy, such as on Libya, where he opposed intervention, on Iraq, where he wanted to leave troops after the withdrawal, and on Afghanistan, where he could not seem to offer a clear position on the troop drawdown.

"Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," said the president.

Romney's statement in March that "Russia is without question our number one geopolitical foe" was treated with scorn.

"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years," said Obama.

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Romney tried to portray the president as weak, saying more than once that America's international problems stemmed from a lack of leadership.

"And then the president began what I have called an 'apology tour,' of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness," said Romney.

On actual foreign policy topics, however, Romney was at a bit of a loss. He has little quarrel with the president on substantive issues. The two traded jabs on China, but in general the former Massachusetts governor was more in agreement with the White House than in opposition to it.

On Afghanistan, both Obama and Romney agree that the withdrawal should be finished by 2014. Both men were at pains to highlight their support for Israel, and their determination that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.

Romney repeatedly tried to bring attention back to where he perceives his strength to be: the economy. Time and again he emphasized that the economy was the major factor holding America back.

"In order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home," he said.

Romney went back again and again to the unemployment level, to the slow pace of recovery, and to the continuing misery of the American people.

The president pointed to areas of progress, and tried to tie Romney to past unpopular policies

"He's praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody … who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century," said Obama.

Obama also rejected Romney's charge that the White House was intent on eviscerating the military.

"You mentioned … that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916," he said. "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed."

Most pundits gave the president the win on points, but it is not pundits who will decide this election.

According to preliminary polls of voters, Obama came out ahead.

CNN released its first survey within an hour of the end of the debate. In what they called "a scientific poll of debate watchers," 48 percent gave Obama the victory, as opposed to 40 percent for Romney.

But just 24 percent said that the debate made them more likely to vote for Obama, versus 25 percent who said they had changed their minds in favor of Romney. Fully 50 percent said the debate had no effect on their decision.

With a race so close, everyone is hanging on the so-called "undecideds" — those who have yet to make up their minds. But that pool of voters is shrinking rapidly.

The crowd watching the debate at a "Rock the Vote" party in Boca Raton's Mizner Park was not wavering in the least. Almost everyone had already made up their minds, and many were there for the concert that preceded the debate, featuring the rock band Neon Trees.

Some also wanted to cheer their candidate on.

"Obama is my man!" said Kathryn Dudeck, a theater major from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "He is wonderful."

Actually, Dudeck did have some reservations.

"I do not think the past four years have gone as well as they should have," she said. "But Mitt Romney just does not care about people. I do not like his position on social issues, like gay rights or abortion. I really think that Obama is the lesser of two evils."

Laura Swauger, homemaker in Boca Raton, agreed.

"This debate is not very important for me," she said. "My mind is made up. I am voting for Obama."

Boca Raton is a fairly conservative enclave, but, said Swauger, there are more Obama supporters than one might think. She herself has been working for the Obama campaign.

"Every day we put out Obama signs, and every morning they are gone. I assume it is the Romney campaign taking them away. It gives the appearance that no one is voting for Obama, but that is not really the case."

Swauger is a recent transplant to Florida, after living in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

"I did not like Romney as governor in Massachusetts," she said. "But people do not want to hear anything negative about him. I really got into it in the grocery store the other day."

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She knows what she wants, and why.

"I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I want her to have freedom of choice. I want that for myself as well. Romney and Ryan scare me to death."

Florida is a key battleground, and the entire election could once again come down to the Sunshine State.

Recent polls have given Romney the edge but it is still much too close to call.

The split between the two camps is deep and bitter.

"I am opposed to Obama on an ideological basis," said Greg Sammons, who owns a small sports gear business. "People are going to do their best when they are left alone to do it. If you keep handing out entitlements then where is the impetus?"

Sammons was watching the debate, but had no great faith that it would, or should, sway the electorate.

"If you are making up your mind on the basis of a 90-minute discussion, then you are an uneducated voter," he shrugged. "The campaign has turned into a popularity contest."

This position was shared by Scott Fitzsimmons, who was standing outside the amphitheater in a bright blue Romney T-shirt. He owns a small insurance business, and wants to get the government out of his pocket.

"The government wastes 75 cents out of every dollar," he said. "No government program ever works. I have seen firsthand the devastation caused by unfettered immigration. I want the candidate who is invested in American exceptionalism, who says that America has to be the top country. I don't want the guy who says we can be just average."

Over the next few days, pollsters will weigh more fully the debate's effect on the voting public. Judging by Boca Raton, the needle will not move greatly. The race will be a nail-biter right down to Nov. 6.

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