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In post-debate spin room, conversation shifts to Obama effectiveness

With the national polls evenly divided, NBC's Chuck Todd says it was President Obama looked like he needed to score more points at the third presidential debate, while Mitt Romney may have hurt himself by playing "prevent defense."


BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Deploying the weapon of mockery, President Barack Obama used the third and final debate Monday night to try to portray his Republican challenger Mitt Romney as entirely out of his depth on foreign policy, a tactic Republicans portrayed as over-the-top and ineffective afterwards.

See related: Obama casts Romney as unseasoned on foreign affairs

“I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy -- but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong,” Obama dismissively told Romney who was sitting a few feet away from him on the debate stage. “You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction.”

With seven states still very undecided, both presidential candidates have set an aggressive travel schedule to try to win votes in the remaining days. NBC's Chuck Todd breaks down which states are still in play and where the candidates are focusing their campaigns.

Calling his opponent “wrong and reckless” Obama reminded viewers that he – not Romney -- has been the one responsible for making decisions of war and peace for the past three and a half years and that he has actually sent military personnel out on perilous missions. “When I’ve sent young men and women into harm’s way, I always understand that that is the last resort, not the first resort,” he said.

And Obama used sarcasm to ridicule Romney: “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed.”

In the post-debate spin room, Republicans charged that Obama had cheapened himself by using sarcasm with his “horses and bayonets” comment.

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney discuss foreign policy in the third and final presidential debate.

“I think it was un-presidential and an attempt to say ‘You know I’ve been around longer than you have’ – and it didn’t come across right,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It was sort of a cheap shot by the president and quite frankly made him look petty --because I think the Navy is too small and the Air Force is too small.”

A Navy at 232 ships – the number that would be left if automatic spending cuts take effect starting at the end of this year -- is “unacceptable,” said Graham. “How do you engage China with a 232-ship Navy?”

"The president made the remarkable statement, I thought, that dismissed ships because he compared them to the horses and bayonets of an earlier time. That's a remarkable statement for our commander-in-chief to make to just simply dismiss one of our armed services like that," said Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

“The first thing I think that was noticeable to many voters was that President Obama was on the attack—that he was conducting himself like a challenger. That sends a signal to a lot of voters that he’s not very confident in his agenda, that instead he feels a need to attack Gov. Romney,” said another Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden in the spin room.

That’s the point Romney made himself during the debate telling Obama, “Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East.”

For their part, Obama surrogates in the spin room defended the president’s mockery of Romney.

“This debate was about strength and the American people were looking for somebody who can be commander in chief,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

With his horses and bayonets reference, “the president was making the point that clearly Mitt Romney was not familiar with how we equip our military these days and he was doing it in a light and humorous way,” Psaki said,

And Psaki reverted to the “Romney as potential warmonger” theme used by Vice President Joe Biden in his debate with GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

When it comes to deterring Iran from building nuclear weapons, “Mitt Romney hasn’t been clear on how exactly he’d be different. Is he suggesting that we should go to war? Is he suggesting we should do more than the president is already doing on sanctions? He’s endorsed and embraced the sanctions that president has put in place and the steps he has taken to bring the world together. What we didn’t hear is exactly what he’d do differently.”

Aware that Obama and Biden were portraying him as trigger happy, Romney said during the debate, “We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they're going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war.”

Robert Wallis / Panos Pictures

In the key battleground state of Florida, divergent opinions separate voters with just over two weeks until the election.

Early in the debate, Romney tried fighting back by interrupting Obama and showing no deference to him, as he’d done in the first two debates.

Romney also tried to demonstrate his knowledge of foreign affairs with two references to the African nation of Mali, telling viewers that “Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali by al-Qaeda type individuals.”

But this raised the question: do many Americans know where Mali is and why it’s important?

Romney did effectively repeat the idea that “We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran” – implying that this was Obama’s fault.

In the spin room Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., answered this by saying, “We all understand that they (the Iranians) have made some progress” toward building nuclear weapons.

The question is whether Iran has reached the critical point of building one and Durbin said the Tehran regime hasn’t.

“The important thing to understand is that sanctions are working” which has created a situation “where the Iranians I believe now feel that they’ve got to sit down and talk.”

“I think this was a great debate for us. I think the Romney people probably feel the same way I felt after the Denver debate,” said Durbin