In his final debate with Obama, Romney played it safe. Was that what voters wanted?

There were times during this last debate when I almost thought I could hear the words of Mitt Romney’s advisers playing in his head:

“Look, big guy, you’re on track to win this thing. What they want to see tonight is a calm, confident leader, unthreatening, informed, unruffled. So don’t get up in Obama’s grill. Bring the conversation back to the economy when you can, and be the reasonable, credible Commander-in-Chief the voters want.”

That was clearly the strategy Romney executed Monday night. He was at pains to agree with President Barack Obama on matters ranging from the deployment of drones to standing with Israel in the face of an attack. He drew attention to Obama’s sharp criticisms by saying “attacking me is not an agenda”—a line he repeated later. He stepped back from a frontal assault on the administration’s confusion over Libya, speaking more broadly about the Middle East, observing, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” and later talking about the need to promote “gender equality.” (I wondered at this point whether the campaign had focused Romney’s attention on the baseball and football games competing for the audience, raising the likelihood that a greater percentage of the audience might be female).

Indeed, there were moments when Romney seemed to be channeling the presence of another ex-governor whose need as a presidential candidate was to reassure.

But unlike Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney did not need to prove that he is something other than a threat to the peace.

Rather, his challenge was to stand—or sit—face to face with the incumbent president and demonstrate that he could credibly argue matters of state, in the face of a debate foe determined to thrust and spar at every opportunity. Without question, Obama came into this last debate knowing that his presidency is hanging by a thread, in large measure due to his remarkably weak performance in the first debate. There was no opportunity he let pass. At one point, he pivoted from the killing of Bin Laden to a conversation he had with a girl whose father had died on Sept. 11, 2001. (I could not help but wonder what the people who charged George W. Bush with politicizing Sept. 11 might have to say about that).

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What happened in this debate, then, was what often happens—in sports and in politics—when someone plays not to lose. Obama clearly dominated the debate, as the instant polls suggested. But now a different question arises. What if the premise of the Romney strategy was wrong?

Indeed, what if the premise of every pre-debate assessment—that this last debate was on a matter peripheral to voters’ central concerns—is wrong? What if a significant sector of the electorate is still weighing the respective claims of the contenders to be in command when a threat to American security arises?

If that’s the case (and we will not know for several days), it may turn out that playing it safe may have been the least safe course of all.