A Horse, a Bayonet and a Game of Battleship

Parsing the fallout after President Obama's "horse and bayonets" comment from last night's presidential debate went viral.

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First there was Big Bird, then came “binders full of women,” and finally last night “horses and bayonets” was welcomed into the presidential race. President Obama probably didn’t realize the worldwide reaction those three words would evoke in a matter of hours. Responding to Governor Romney’s argument that the U.S. navy is now smaller than at any time since 1917, Obama advised the Republican party candidate to spend a little more time studying how the U.S. military works.

“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. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting slips.”

Although the comment was greeted with some muffled laughter from the audience, it was through the medium of Twitter that the ripple effect of the president’s words became clear. The “horses and bayonets” comment became the peak moment of the debate in terms of social media, leading to 105,767 tweets per minute using the #debates hashtag, reports USA Today. But, it was during the night that #horsesandbayonets really began to attract interest. By morning the hashtag was trending at noticeable speed.

Tumblr also took the opportunity to play on the president’s wording, setting up a blog dedicated to horses and bayonets overnight.

Governor Romney has yet to comment on the hundreds of thousands of tweets that followed last night’s debate, but his running mate, Paul Ryan, was quick to voice confusion and bewilderment at the president’s comments.

(MORE: The Third Debate: Obama Wins on Style and Substance)

“To compare modern American battleships and Navy with bayonets, I just don’t understand that comparison,” Ryan said on CBS “This Morning,” as cited in Politico. “If all these defense cuts go through, our Navy will be smaller than it was before World War I. That’s not acceptable,” he said. “And, yes, the ocean hasn’t shrunk. You still have to have enough ships to have a footprint that you need to keep sea lanes open, to keep our strength abroad where it needs to be.”

Responding to the debate, vice-president Joe Biden was asked by Today whether he thought Romney was a qualified commander-in-chief. “No,” he replied. “He’s not. He’s a good man. He’s a decent man. But he’s demonstrated an overwhelming lack of understanding to the international community, and he’s demonstrated a lack of understanding of the military.”

(MORE: Debate Finale: Romney Agrees with Obama, Says Give Peace a Chance)

In the meantime, the Internet continues to go crazy for Obama’s debate-defining comment. And maybe, if you’ll pardon the pun, he had a point about horses and bayonets. According to the Military Memorial War Museum in Wyoming there is only one cavalry division in the United States army and for the most part, the division’s horses are used purely for ceremonial purposes.

The big question following the third presidential debate is who walked away as winner. TIME’s Joe Klein argues that Obama won on both style and substance, while across the waters the London Times argued that even though the president won the debate on points, it was not a defeat for Romney, who needed only to “maintain his momentum in the polls by reassuring swing voters that he was not a warmonger, rather a crusader for peace.”