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The Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., site of Monday's presidential debate
Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall
The Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., site of Monday's presidential debate

Final face-off

Politics | The third and last presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney will focus on foreign policy

The long season of political debates finally ends on Monday night.

After more than two-dozen debates during the Republican presidential primary season, one vice presidential debate, and two presidential debates with high ratings, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney will share the stage Monday for the last time with just two weeks to go before Election Day.

The final meeting comes as a new poll released Sunday by NBC and The Wall Street Journal shows the race tied. Both President Obama and Gov. Romney are at 47 percent of support among likely voters, according to the poll.

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This time their face-off occurs in the battleground state of Florida. But don’t expect the kind of highly charged confrontation seen in the second debate when the two candidates prowled the stage and often came close to invading one another’s personal space. Instead, the two men will be seated at a table for Monday night’s 90-minute debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

In recent weeks, Romney has erased the lead Obama enjoyed after the political conventions ended in early September. Romney’s surge began with a spirited performance against a listless Obama in the first debate Oct. 3. That night, so far, has been the race’s defining moment. On Monday night, Obama hopes to further erase that performance from the memory of voters while Romney hopes to prove it was not a fluke.

The former Massachusetts governor has performed best when talking about the nation’s stagnant economy and the persistently high unemployment figures. While highlighting the country’s rising debt and Obama’s failed promise to bring the unemployment rate down to 5.6 percent, Romney has argued that his background as a business executive makes him the best candidate to tackle the nation’s fiscal woes. He’s managed to state his case and increase his likeability ratings in the process, despite offering little specifics beyond a broad five-point plan.

But Romney will not be able to depend on this economic message during Monday’s debate, which will focus on foreign policy.

CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, the debate’s moderator, has announced he will ask questions on five topics: America’s role in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, red lines for Israel and Iran, the new face of terrorism in a changing Middle East, and the rise of China.

Schieffer will press for specifics on what the candidates will do to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and how they will handle troop deployment in a still unstable Afghanistan.

But the debate’s main event could center on the attack last month on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. With congressional investigations on the Obama administration’s handling of the incident just cranking up, Romney had a surprisingly difficult time when he tackled this topic during debate No. 2 in Hempstead, N.Y. last Tuesday.

Saying he found it “troubling” that Obama flew to a political fundraiser in Las Vegas on the day after the assassination of the U.S. ambassador, Romney questioned when the Obama administration was willing to admit the incident was a planned act of terror and not a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.

“It was very clear this was not a demonstration,” Romney said during that town hall-style debate. “This was an attack by terrorists. And this calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East.”

Obama pushed back, arguing that he stood in the White House’s Rose Garden the day after the attack and called it an act of terror. When Romney countered that it took the administration 14 days to call the Benghazi attack an act of terror, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN jumped in with an instant fact-check, seeming to side with Obama’s assertions.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy,” Obama asked as the audience laughed and applauded.

Romney taken aback, hesitated, verbally stumbled, and ultimately retreated from his talking points.

While Obama’s Rose Garden speech did include a promise that “no acts of terror” would shake America’s resolve, he did not directly tie the Benghazi killings to terrorists. Instead, he called it “senseless” and “brutal” while rejecting the controversial YouTube video. After the debate, Crowley said that Romney’s timeline argument “was right in the main.” But her admission came too little too late for Romney, as few of the millions who watched the debate likely caught Crowley’s follow-up clarification.

Many conservatives said it was Romney’s weakest moment of the two debates. But now he gets a redo. The Libyan attack remains a key area of vulnerability for Obama, and Romney would be wise to focus less on the semantics of the word “terror” and more on the unanswered questions surrounding the administration’s handling of the issue. That includes pleas by Ambassador Stevens prior to the attack for extra security that the administration either ignored or rejected. 

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