The Australian

By Bates Gill

On both style and substance, US President Barack Obama could claim victory in the third and final debating match with contender Mitt Romney.

But will it matter all that much to either candidate in their bids to be the next president? For at least three important reasons, probably not.

For starters, it was widely expected that the President would outperform Romney in this encounter, with his more ample international experience and foreign policy fluency on display. No surprises there, and supporters on both sides, as well as voters who are undecided, would not have their expectations altered by this outcome.

Perhaps Obama catalysed some new support with some well-aimed zingers and with frequent reminders that he holds the office of Commander-in-Chief, but surely not enough to win all that many new converts. In any event, most of Romney's advocates — save perhaps for the true neoconservatives among them — can claim that Romney largely said the right things, made no startling gaffes, and certainly did well enough to maintain their support.

Second — and in what was one of the most interesting upshots from the exchange — the two men did not differ all that much on most of the key foreign policy issues they discussed. Time and time again, on the substantive policy choices raised in this debate — on Libya, on Syria, on Iran, on Afghanistan, on China, on energy issues — there was not much daylight between the two. Indeed, it was striking the number of times Romney expressed support for many of Obama's key foreign policy decisions. Importantly, on one of the most important foreign policy concerns of Americans, both men were clear in their strong disinclination to dispatch the American military to new entanglements abroad, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or Iran. Romney in particular took pains to stress his peaceful intentions in an effort to reassure sceptics that he is not trigger-happy.

To the degree the two truly tried to draw sharp contrasts with one another, it was more on matters of style than substance: Romney repeatedly claimed the President lacks leadership and commitment to American values and interests; Obama asserted that his opponent lacked consistency and credibility.

The one critical issue area where the two candidates appear to have real policy differences relates to future military spending — with the Republican challenger calling for significant increases and the Democratic incumbent pointing to the need for moderation.

Only Obama really pursued this angle of attack, seeking to discredit his rival's position with reference to the American fiscal deficits that would make such plans implausible if not impossible. But by and large, on foreign policy issues that matter, both laid claim to the pragmatic, moderate middle in ways that neither stirred new passion amongst heretofore uncommitted voters nor alienated steadfast supporters.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the outcomes of this third debate will not matter all that much for the election because the core topic — foreign policy — does not matter all that much to most American voters.

As predicted, viewership was down — just over 59 million tuned in, the lowest number for the three debates (a figure not helped by the fact that the faceoff had to compete for viewers with two other contests, the ever-popular weekly Monday Night Football match and a decisive late-season baseball playoff).

But even without that competition, in a latter-day version of isolationism, Americans — not all that enthused with foreign policy matters to begin with — are overwhelmingly focused on domestic affairs, and particularly on jobs, the deficit, taxes and the appropriate role of government.

The candidates clearly reflected this concern in their debate tactics: each repeatedly sought to steer their responses on ostensibly international issues towards their by now well-established domestic agenda talking points. To be sure, such linkages are relevant. But the candidates' repeated resort to domestic issues said much more about what is important to the American voter than about the complexities of foreign policy strategy and decision-making.

Given these points, in spite of his strongest debate performance of the campaign, Obama's position in the polls changes little. At best, his success will remind some among the dwindling numbers of undecided voters that he achieved several significant foreign and security policy accomplishments as President and that could sway their choice come November 6.

On the other hand, as a challenger on the same stage as the President, Romney "wins" simply by being there, averting major missteps, and reassuring Americans that he is up to the task of being president.

American foreign policy under either administration will remain relatively moderate, risk-averse, and restrained by fiscal realities. And who will be in the Oval Office to execute that policy in three months' time? That is too difficult to call at the moment, but this debate will have had little bearing on Americans' choice.

This article was originally published by The Australian