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Obama on the attack in final debate against Romney

Opinion polls named US President Barack Obama the winner in a third and final face-off against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Florida, Monday night that saw the two candidates trading barbs and criticisms on foreign policy.


With US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney locked in a nail-biting dead heat just 15 days before election day, the two shared a stage in Boca Raton, Florida, Monday night for their third and last debate: an initially polite, then increasingly sharp-toned face-off on foreign policy.

Though Romney was seen as the clear victor of their first debate, the Obama that showed up to the second and third encounters was a noticeably more combative president: ready to rattle off his accomplishments, slam his opponent and even deliver a handful of withering one-liners.

Obama, indeed, used Monday’s match-up -- moderated by veteran journalist Bob Schieffer -- to put his opponent on the defensive, taking time to tout his counterterrorism record and diplomatic efforts while portraying Romney as “all over the map” and unprepared to be commander-in-chief.

Romney, meanwhile, adopted a relatively measured tone, several times expressing agreement with Obama and seeming to avoid coming off as overly hawkish and bellicose.

Obama ‘dominates’

It was the president, though, who was in his comfort zone. “The president, through superior knowledge and having -- after four years -- a record that is defensible in the field, won the third debate,” assessed Dr. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He added that Romney was “visibly nervous”, though “it’s doubtful [he] did any real damage to himself”.

Darrell West, of left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution, also thought Obama “dominated the debate”, while Romney “missed many opportunities to show leadership by pointing out policy differences”.

American voters seemed to agree: a series of polls conducted right after the debate (by CBS, CNN, PPP, Google) indicated that a decisive majority of viewers thought the president won the debate.

Foreign affairs are not among voters’ top priorities in an election largely dominated by economic concerns, and, indeed, both candidates frequently pivoted back to domestic issues during Monday night’s face-off. But anti-American violence in Libya, as well as an increasingly dire crisis in Syria and ongoing tensions with Iran, have kept international relations in US headlines.

And in a race that is currently a toss-up, both candidates were hoping to gain leverage from the discussion, which also touched on the Arab Spring, Afghanistan, Israel, and China.

Obama consistently presented himself as a steady navigator of choppy international waters, saying: “My first job as commander-in-chief is to keep the American people safe, and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years.”

Throughout the course of the night, Obama proceeded to point out the risky killing of bin Laden, the multilateral approach to toppling Gaddafi and imposing sanctions on Iran, the ending of the war in Iraq, and the strength of alliances -- especially with Israel.

He leveled criticism at Romney that ranged from sweeping -- “Every time you’ve offered an opinion [on foreign policy], you’ve been wrong,” he alleged -- to bitingly ironic; at one point, he mocked Romney for a lack of familiarity with the most recent military technology, and quipped that “the 1980s wants its foreign policy back” in reference to Romney’s prior assertion that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe”.

Obama also repeatedly called Romney out for shifting his positions on a variety of international issues, saying that the presidency calls for “clarity of leadership”.
But while the president accused Romney of proposing the same “wrong and reckless” strategies as former president and vice president George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Romney seemed to take pains to portray himself as a foreign policy moderate who would not drag America into more wars. He congratulated Obama on getting rid of bin Laden, but said “we cannot kill our way out of” every situation, and otherwise acknowledged agreement with the president on various points.

Will the debate ‘change minds’?

The criticisms Romney did articulate were mostly broad, as he accused Obama of allowing America’s influence in the world to decline, neglecting the alliance with Israel, and showing “weakness” on the Iran situation. Romney also hit Obama once again for carrying out what he said amounted to an “apology tour” in the Middle East.

As the two candidates exited the stage, the question looming -- as usual, but more urgently than ever -- was whether this final debate would have an impact on voters’ decisions as the clock ticks down to November 6.

“I doubt this debate will change any minds about the election,” Karlyn Bowman, an analyst from right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, noted.

Dr. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said that while “it’s possible Obama will get a decent lift from the final debate”, that result is far from certain.

Still, even a tiny shift could matter. Romney appears to hold a slim lead in national polls, and though Obama is ahead in early voting exit polls and clinging to his advantage in several key swing states, many experts expect the race to be a cliffhanger until the end.

The candidates will spend the next two weeks hitting the campaign trail, making their closing arguments, trying to convince undecided voters -- and, perhaps most crucially, firing up their respective bases to make sure supporters turn out on the most important day of all.

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