President Obama came armed with an arsenal of biting one-liners at the final presidential debate Monday night, trying to paint Mitt Romney as "all over the map" on foreign affairs, but he encountered a Republican rival who returned fire in moderation -- at times chiding the president for “weakness” on the world stage but also finding common ground with the man he’s been running against for nearly two years.
The debate in Boca Raton, Fla., the last before a feverish two-week blitz of campaigning, was a departure from the candidates’ previous bout. A week ago, the two paced around each other in an interruption-filled bickering match. On Monday night, the rivals were seated next to one another, making for a less confrontational setting – though the candidates’ differences were still on full display.
To hear Romney tell it, the president has presided over a steady decline in American influence that has emboldened enemies like Iran. “In nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago,” Romney said.
To hear Obama, the Republican nominee is “all over the map” on world affairs. Obama accused Romney of pushing a foreign policy that’s either flat-out “wrong” or some version of what the president himself has already done, only “louder.”
But Romney, while lambasting the president for his so-called “apology tour” and his allegedly frosty relationship with Israel, used a lighter touch at Monday’s debate than in the past. The face-off frequently dipped into the economy and the budget but the foreign policy side of things – which was supposed to be the focus – barely touched on the most heated topic, the Libya terror attacks.
Romney, who after months of trailing Obama is suddenly up in a string of national and battleground polls, appeared at times to scold Obama for getting too aggressive. After Obama pointedly told him, “every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong,” Romney responded: “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
Romney offered a few areas of agreement with the president, including on ruling out military action in Syria, continuing to support sanctions against Iran and supporting the withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan. In doing so, the Republican nominee rejected Obama’s suggestion that he would be eager to lurch into war with countries like Iran. He also brushed off Obama’s claims that Romney would return to the foreign policies of the prior administration.
Romney’s chief criticism of the president Monday night was that he has not provided a clear example of American leadership for the world, whether it be in Syria or Iran or Russia.
But Obama, in turn, sought to portray Romney as someone who would be unsteady on the world stage, with a risky mix of poor judgment and antiquated views. The president employed sharp, at times sarcastic, language to cast Romney as out of his depth.
After a tense exchange on Al Qaeda, the president said: “I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaeda.”
Obama then worked in his punchline: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Later on, the president mocked Romney for complaining about the Navy having fewer ships than it did a century ago.
“Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed,” Obama said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines, and so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships, it's what are our capabilities.”
Romney was most aggressive at the start of the debate, claiming the president’s counterterror strategy has not quelled the Al Qaeda threat. It was the first and last reference to the Sept. 11 terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, something that has driven the debate on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill for a month.
“It’s certainly not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding,” Romney said of Al Qaeda. “This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries.”
Romney commended Obama for ordering the raid that killed Usama bin Laden and other strikes on Al Qaeda leaders, but said “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” He said Al Qaeda remains an “enormous threat,” despite Obama’s claims that the terror group is on the path to defeat.
Obama, though, countered that “Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.”
On the issue of Iran, the two candidates were equally insistent that, under their watch, the regime would not obtain a nuclear weapon – and that, if Israel were attacked, the U.S. would stand by its side. Romney, though, said Obama has “wasted” four years while Iran has marched ever closer to nuclear weapon capability. Obama said he knows the “clock is ticking” and defended efforts to unite the international community against Iran.
The 90-minute debate at Lynn University was moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer and offered perhaps the last chance for either candidate to shake up the race in any significant way, with two weeks to go until Election Day.
The presidential debates this month have been among the most consequential in modern campaign history. Romney entered the debates as the slight underdog in most polls, but since his opening performance has surged to even or better with the president.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Sunday showed the president and Romney tied at 47 percent nationally. In the vital swing state of Ohio, a Suffolk University survey released Monday also showed the two tied at 47 percent. Other recent polls have given Obama a slight edge.