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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama renewed their personal hostilities against each other last night, triggering explosive exchanges over foreign affairs in the final presidential debate.
A sarcastic U.S. president repeatedly patronised his Republican opponent, accusing him of being ‘all over the map’ on how to deal with the world, ‘wrong and reckless’ and in one taunt claimed that Romney was so outdated in his military thinking that he treated ‘like a game of Battleship’, and mocked him for living in a time of 'horses and bayonets'.
But Romney held his own in the face of Obama's sustained assaults, working hard to establish his credentials as a sober and steady statesman with an obviously well-briefed analysis of world matters, from Iran to Poland to Mali.
Early polling gave Obama the victory in the battle, but whether he will go on to win the war remains to be seen as it is still unclear whether he has done enough to stop Romney's momentum and erode his slight national lead.
The two bitter rivals were meeting for the final time at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, with all to play for in a neck-and-neck race for the White House.
CNN's survey of debate-watchers showed that 48 considered the President the winner, with 40 per cent favouring Romney and 12 per cent undecided. A CBS poll had Obama in front with 53 per cent compared to just 23 per cent for Romney, with 24 per cent on the fence.
One contest Obama undoubtedly won was that of loquaciousness - the President spoke for 41 minutes and 42 seconds, 35 seconds longer than Romney. The Democratic candidate had the majority of speaking time in all four presidential or vice-presidential debates this year.
It was Obama who appeared to be the challenger at times – a clear sign that he fears his re-election hopes are slipping away from him – hammering away at Romney, trying to belittle him and all but calling him a liar.
Romney tried to remain above the fray and appeal to moderate and undecided voters. He was noticeably less tetchy than in the bad-tempered second debate in Hempstead, New York.
But the Republican nominee hit home with a precise attack on Obama’s ‘apology tour’ of the Middle East in 2009, which seemed to rile Obama visibly. He said that the President had said he was sorry the U.S. had dictated to countries, adding: ‘Mr President we have not dictated to other nations, we have freed other nations from dictators’.
The Romney campaign appeared confident in the aftermath of the debate, arguing that Obama was 'shedding voters' and was 'trying to manage the rate of decline' in support ahead of election day.
'We entered this debate in a good position and we leave it in a stronger position,' said strategist Stuart Stevens. 'Whatever is that intangible quality of being presidential and who you would trust, Governor Romney had it more than the President.'
Speaking about Obama's performance in Boca Raton, Stevens added: 'It was not the demeanour you would expect of a President. He came in with a bunch of political talking points like a young fresh graduate of a spin class trying to come off with these points.'
But the President's campaign manager Jim Messina described Romney as 'unsteady', adding that he 'did not look like a commander-in-chief. He did not pass the test and that's a very bad moment for the Romney campaign.'
He continued: 'The contrast tonight was between a strong and steady President and an uncertain Romney and that's how incumbent presidents get re-elected.'