BOCA RATON, Fla. — An assertive President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney Monday night of taking an unclear and vacillating approach to foreign policy, saying such confusing signals would embolden the nation’s enemies in a time of continued threats.
Romney responded by brushing aside the attacks, saying they failed to address the serious challenges — and opportunities — the country faces as the Middle East convulses in widespread upheaval.
The two men wasted no time tangling in the opening moments of their third and final presidential debate, a session devoted to national security and foreign policy.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, consistent with the earlier debates, took a more moderate stance than he has in much of the campaign.
He praised Obama for the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but said the country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He said the answer is greater economic opportunities and the spread of freedom.
Obama immediately went on the attack, citing Romney’s earlier Cold War-style rhetoric and suggesting Romney wanted to institute a 1980s foreign policy to go along with a social policy from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s.
“Every time you’ve offered an opinion,” the president said bluntly, “you’ve been wrong.”
Seated side-by-side at a wooden tabletop and facing the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, each candidate hoped for a breakthrough while avoiding any misstep that could assume outsized import in the campaign’s final, crucial stretch.
The 90-minute session on the campus of Lynn University in South Florida was seen as favoring Obama, at least starting out. He is the nation’s commander in chief, with the gravitas that confers. Moreover, he can boast, as he has throughout the campaign, of several major accomplishments, including the killing of bin Laden, keeping his pledge to end the war in Iraq and laying out plans to end America’s increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan.
Just ahead of the debate, the Obama campaign broadcast a new TV spot highlighting the withdrawal from Iraq and plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here,” the ad stated, tying an economic argument to the president’s foreign policy message.
In the past few weeks, however, Obama has been thrown on the defensive on foreign policy, once considered his strongest suit, as the administration offered an evolving series of explanations for the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the assault, details of which are still hazy.
Despite that opening, Romney has not been terribly sure-footed when he strays from his campaign’s central focus on the economy. He staged a poorly reviewed summer trip to Europe and Israel, puzzled even some Republicans by calling Russia the nation’s top strategic foe, and has been burned by attempts to capitalize on the controversy over Benghazi, including a factual misstatement in last week’s debate.
The debate followed a pair of outings that saw vastly different performances by Obama, who faltered in his first face-to-face meeting with Romney, then came back aggressively in the second.
Romney’s commanding Oct. 3 performance in Denver rallied Republicans and forestalled a possible Obama runaway; the president’s comeback on Long Island last week reassured Democrats and averted panic in his party, though it failed to recoup the momentum Obama lost after his poor initial showing.
With just 14 full days of campaigning left, the two men are running neck-and-neck in national polls, even as the president continues to hold a small edge in the state-by-state electoral vote contest.
The topic of Monday night’s debate was a break from the campaign’s recent focus on abortion, birth control and other issues aimed primarily at women voters, who are seen as potentially the decisive bloc on Election Day.
The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy, however, have been marginal, with both sides magnifying them to suggest a greater separation than exists. Throughout the campaign, for instance, Romney has criticized Obama’s timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but, at the same time, indicated he would adhere to the plan to bring them home by 2014.
He has repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more to secure stability in Syria and Libya, but has not said whether he would consider committing U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in either nation.
Romney has mainly painted his foreign policy vision in broad strokes, saying he would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” — a Republican standby since the days of Ronald Reagan — and seek to preside over “an American century.”
More than 67 million people tuned in to the first debate, and the viewership was nearly as large for last week’s follow-up. The audience for the final session in Florida was expected to be smaller, due in part to the topic — foreign policy is not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans — and competition with “Monday Night Football” and the deciding game of baseball’s National League Championship Series.
Regardless, the debate was significant as the last chance for voters to see the two presidential hopefuls side-by-side and engaging in a relatively free-flowing, unscripted exchange. It also represented the last major chance the candidates had to appeal to voters who have yet to make up their minds and, perhaps more importantly, to excite their supporters and motivate them to turn out for the Nov. 6 election.
© 2012 Tribune Company. Used by arrangement with Newscom.