Obama, Romney tangle on al Qaeda, foreign policy in final presidential debate

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“Your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map,” Mr. Obama said, adding that just a few months ago, when asked what the biggest international threat was for the U.S., Mr. Romney said it was Russia, not al Qaeda.

“The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama repeatedly tried to push his incumbent’s advantage, at one point ridiculing Mr. Romney’s claim that the U.S. has fewer ships than at any time since World War II.

“We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” the president said. “The question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships; it’s what are our capabilities.”

As the challenger, Mr. Romney spent a good deal of time demonstrating he’d studied his briefs, as he pointed to al Qaeda activity in Mali and recited the approximate number of nuclear warheads Pakistan has assembled.

And both men tried to turn the conversation to domestic issues, which they believe are more salient in voters’ minds than foreign policy right now, saying that the U.S.’s world leadership depends on a strong economy here at home.

At one point Mr. Obama, saying that education had been neglected in the two domestic debates, began to talk about education, highlighting his plan to hire math and science teachers.

“Let me get back to foreign policy,” moderator Bob Schieffer pleaded at one point — before acceding to Mr. Romney’s demand that he be allowed to highlight his own education record.

On Syria, while both men proclaimed to have differences, they laid out a similar policy of trying to help allies in the region, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and of trying to get weapons to the right kinds of regime opponents.

“The Saudis and the Qatari and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They’re willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the insurgents there are armed and that the insurgents that become armed are people who will be the responsible parties,” the Republican said.

Mr. Obama retorted that’s the policy he’s already pursuing.

“What you just heard Governor Romney say is he doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing,” Mr. Obama said.

After two foreign policy elections in 2004 and 2008, global affairs have shifted to the back burner for much of this year’s campaign as the sluggish economy has dominated. But recent events in the Middle East — including the terrorist assault on the consulate in Benghazi — have raised its salience.

Voters have generally given Mr. Obama higher marks on foreign policy, though Mr. Romney does better when the question is narrowed to national security.

The two men entered the debate with polls showing a close race. The Washington Times/Zogby Poll released Sunday showed Mr. Obama leading 50-47 among likely voters, while the Gallup Poll has Mr. Romney leading 51-45.

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