This was the best of the debates. Both Obama and Romney were at the top of their games. Romney’s camp positioned him as reassuring and, to the extent it was possible, presidential. This was very smart; it smoothed the rough edges that emerge whenever Romney goes on the attack. Clearly the Romney camp thinks their guy is ahead, or at the very least has the momentum. Romney had been coached to agree with Obama and not to engage on controversial topics. We did not see much of the Mitt Romney of the first debate. Romney’s attacks on Obama were muted.

Obama gave a very strong performance. He won most of the points on which he and Romney disagreed. He seemed more like a leader in this debate than he had in either of the previous two.

One of the things Romney did effectively was to shift the emphasis from foreign affairs onto domestic issues, namely the economy. Romney reminded voters that the president said he would get unemployment below 5.4%, and he hasn’t done that; we’re 9 million jobs short, 23 million people struggling to get a job.

Romney walked straight into a trap on America’s military strength. He said the navy was smaller than it has been since 1917; maybe so, but it isn’t the number of ships that matter; it’s what they can do. Obama’s restort was that we don’t have “horses and bayonets” either. Trying to prove that America is weaker militarily than it has been in the past was a futile strategy for Romney, and he paid a price for it.

Romney’s most effective line was, “We can’t kill our way out of this,” in part an effort to offset the coup of killing of Osama bin Laden.

Obama made a good case for his handling of Iran: The value of Iranian currency has dropped by 89%, the economy is in shambles, they can’t export their oil.

Romney repeated a theme that he has returned to many times, which is that Obama has not been a strong enough supporter of Israel. He pointed out that Obama visited many countries in the Middle East but skipped Israel. “They noticed it,” Romney said of the Israelis.

Romney’s basic argument on foreign policy was that America has not exercised enough leadership in the world. He was critical of American foreign policy toward Syria, but he did not advocate intervening. Not much difference between them on that point. The main difference was over Obama’s support for Israel, or lack thereof.

Obama delivered most of the punches in this debate and he scored most of the points. But there were no knockdowns, no standing eight counts. Romney’s strategy was not to win, but to not lose, and he accomplished that goal. The first thing the R spinmeisters said was that he was presidential. Not compared to Obama, he wasn’t. But he gave a solid, if uninspiring, account of himself.

Did Obama’s performance in the second and third debates put enough distance between his disastrous performance in the first debate? Obama had better hope that the last impression lingers the longest, but the first one set the tone for the final stage of the campaign.