Romney had hoped to use the incident to erode Obama’s national security credentials. Instead, he battled with the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, over whether he was accurately characterizing Obama’s remarks about whether the incident was a terror attack.
The exchange left Romney aides fuming at Crowley, while Obama was able to avoid the question of whether his administration had protected the facility adequately.
Obama also danced around other questions that could have tripped him up.
He turned a question about gun control — an unpopular issue for voters in many battleground states — into an opportunity to point out Romney’s shifting positions on the issue.
Obama responded to a question about gas prices by noting that they had been low when he took office only because of the recession that he inherited.
“It’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we’d be back in that same mess,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Aside from his blown opportunity on Libya, Romney did not do poorly. He reminded viewers that Obama had failed to fulfill promises to cut the deficit in half and introduce immigration-reform legislation, and warned that too many people are still out of work.
“If you elect President Obama you know what you’re going to get,” he said. “You’re going to get a repeat of the last four years.”
Romney’s performance probably did not hurt his chances of winning the White House, analysts said. However, Obama probably boosted his odds by turning in the focused, aggressive performance that his supporters had hoped to see in the first debate.
“They’re thinking: ‘We’re back in the ball game,’” said Robert Lehrman, a former speech writer for former Democratic vice president Al Gore who now teaches at American University.
“It wasn’t that Romney got worse — Obama got a lot better,” Lehrman said.