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First Take: Obama, Romney break out of foreign policy boundaries in final debate

NBC's Chuck Todd reports that the third and final debate between President Obama and Governor Romney was a clash in styles, with an aggressive president met by an opponent who seemed to search for areas of agreement.

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney debated domestic policy almost as much as they did foreign policy during the third and final presidential debate Monday night in Lynn University, Boca Raton.

Obama's barbs and policy clashes define the final debate

Jonathan Sanger and M. Alex Johnson are reporters for NBC News. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.

Obama delivered some of the harshest lines of the night, inspiring "horses and bayonets" memes across the Internet after he mocked Romney's criticism that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917":

"Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater — nuclear submarines":

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney debate the best strategy for keeping the military strong.

Here's a selection of the reaction from NBC News analysts and others:

Brian Williams, anchor of 'NBC Nightly News'
"We always try to look for the phrase or expression that will live forever out of these. Tonight's has to be 'horses and bayonets.' It was during an exchange where, clearly, the president's effort was to paint Governor Romney, paint the debate as kind of a past-versus-future framing. It was specifically about the military — the governor's assertion we had fewer ships as a Navy than at any time since (1917) — a very sharp comeback from the president."

Tom Brokaw, NBC News
"What we saw tonight was Governor Romney trying to move to a less hawkish position, talking much more about winning hearts and minds than he has in the past.

NBC's Tom Brokaw describes the debate as more civilized than the previous meeting between the candidates.

"If you could have said to one of the two candidates, 'Nice tie,' he would have said, 'Yes, let me talk to you about the economy.' They got back to that subject as quickly as possible, because they know that's where the big interests of the country are.

"When it comes to foreign policy, these are very complex issues, and there are no shake-and-bake kinds of answers to them. No one has talked, for example, about the European economy and the impact it's having on our domestic economy."

David Gregory, moderator, 'Meet the Press'
"Our colleague Tom Brokaw likes to talk about voters' watching an event like this and imagining either the president or his challenger as commander-in-chief, in the Oval Office. Obviously, a sitting president has already passed that threshold test, and I think you saw President Obama trying to make it very clear that Mitt Romney, in his judgment, was not up to the test. talking about his positions' being all over the map, talking about the fact that you've never had to execute on foreign policy decisions, talking about what I've learned as commander-in-chief.

NBC News' David Gregory and Savannah Guthrie analyze the third and final debate.

"You also saw the president determined to pick a fight ... with Governor Romney and Romney surprisingly determined to avoid a fight, playing almost as if he was ahead, determined to sound more moderate, to disagree less with the president on foreign policy.

"Where were the bright shining distinctions between these two men tonight?"

Savannah Guthrie, NBC News
"This was absolutely the Romney strategy going into this debate — to majorly tone down the rhetoric, and at times, as David observed, it seemed the president was spoiling for a fight. He wanted to draw the contrast.

"Romney, it was clear from the very first answer, wasn't going to be the Romney we've seen on the campaign trail, known for those stinging criticisms of the president on a whole host of areas of foreign policy. He was asked about Benghazi, Libya — something we've heard Romney go hard after the president on the campaign trail — but he didn't take the bait from the very first answer. Instead, Romney advisers said they wanted him to come across as measured, as moderate, as somebody who has an understanding of the foreign policy issues with some depth.

NBC News' Chuck Todd says President Barack Obama looked as though he needed to score more points at the third presidential debate, while Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney might have hurt himself by playing "prevent defense."

Vote: Did the final debate influence whom you'll support?

"There were times during this debate where it seemed Romney was almost delivering a book report on the hot spots of the world. (He was) clearly trying to show that he will not be caricatured as a warmonger, somebody who engages in cowboy rhetoric. But the president, by the same token, (was) determined to remind him of his past statements."

Truth Squad: The third and final presidential debate

Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations
"I found all of this somewhat odd. But again, to me, the larger bottom line of the night was that on foreign policy issues, there was actually much more agreement than disagreement.

Council on Foreign Affairs President Richard Haass says there was "much less disagreement than you would have expected."

"I found it striking how both gentlemen were talking about things domestic. Here it was a foreign policy debate, and they both kept coming back to what were the real bases of American strength: 'Enough nation building overseas; now we need to start nation building at home.' That to me was a consistent theme, and I think they're both reflecting what they're hearing and seeing out around the country."

George Pataki, former governor of New York
"When the president stands up there and says we need to put some distance between ourselves and Israel, I think you're making a very clear statement. As Governor Romney effectively pointed out tonight, on that first trip he visits Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, he goes to Iraq, but skips our closest ally. That sends a message not just to the Middle East but to the globe about Israel's standing in this administration.

Former Gov. George Pataki, R-N.Y., criticizes President Barack Obama on his policy with regard to Israel and suggests that Obama should have taken a great role in the Green Revolution in Iran.

"Talk about changing policies — it was President Obama's administration that fought tooth and nail to delay the sanctions that he's bragging about tonight. It was Congress that said to the president, because of the support of the American people, we're going to make sure we have these things.

"Governor Romney today pointed out differences on Iran where he would be far more aggressive on sanctions, and the president again — revisionist history — it was President Obama who, when the Green Revolution was happening in Iran, when Iranian students were holding up signs saying, 'America, help us,' this president was the one who sat on the sideline and did nothing.

"This is a president who forever in his speech was talking about how al-Qaida is on the run. Well, he's dropped that. ...

"I'm proud of Governor Romney tonight. I think he did an excellent job."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Obama's practice debate opponent
"If you're a leader in the world, you're scratching your head tonight saying, 'How could the American people possibly elect a guy who has changed his position every few months and doesn't know what he's going to do in foreign policy?'

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., calls Mitt romney "a candidate in confusion."

"I thought I was listening to the Wikipedia candidate tonight. (Romney) would say, 'Oh, there are Taliban in Pakistan. They have nuclear weapons.' But what's the policy, Governor? What are you going to do that is different? How are you going to — nothing. Absolutely nothing. Which is why I tweeted that they sunk the battleship.

"Take the ships. As a Navy guy, when I was in the Navy, we had 680-something ships. There's not anybody that questions today that our Navy is the most powerful on the seas, that we don't have the most powerful military in the world. We spent more, as the president said tonight, than the next 10 nations in the world — China, Russia, Great Britain, France all put together — we spend more. ...

"I have to tell you: I was stunned. Mitt Romney scares — he really scared me tonight. I mean, this is a guy, if people think he's ready to be president, this country's going to go back to the Bush policies that took us to Iraq."

From tramping through cornfields to munching ice cream cones to holding babies – the time-honored traditions of the campaign trail leave President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney looking surprisingly alike.