BOCA RATON, Fla. — Mitt Romney accused President Obama of failing to protect the military from budget cuts and squandering U.S. leadership in the Middle East, leaving America standing by as al Qaeda has surged to become active in a dozen countries, as the two men faced off Monday night in their final debate.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, repeatedly accused the Republican nominee of being an amateur on foreign policy — the subject of the night's debate — and touted his own credentials, including overseeing the mission that killed Osama bin Laden and committing U.S. planes to a no-fly zone that aided Libyan rebels.
"I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Mr. Obama said.
"Attacking me is not an agenda," Mr. Romney retorted.
The foreign policy-focused debate served to highlight just how little daylight there is between the two men on the big basic foreign policy choices, ranging from handling the civil war in Syria to unequivocally backing Israel to using drones to attack terrorist targets to trying to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Mr. Romney even said he backed the same 2014 timeline Mr. Obama has laid out for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan — a matter where he'd tried to draw distinctions in previous remarks.
At one point, Mr. Obama said the key difference between the two candidates was that Mr. Romney embraced the Obama administration ideas, "but you'd say them louder."
But Mr. Romney argued they differ in the overall tenor and tone they would take toward using U.S. leadership around the world, particularly in confronting radical Islam and al Qaeda.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Mr. Romney said, in the debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, as he sought to draw distinctions between himself and Mr. Obama, saying the U.S. must take more leadership to try to push the Muslim world toward moderation. "We must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism."
He again accused Mr. Obama of making "an apology tour" in the Middle East to express regret for past U.S. actions.
"In those nations and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that, on occasion, America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators," Mr. Romney said.
But the president called the claim that he's apologized "probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign."
Mr. Obama led off the debate by defending his decision-making concerning Libya, where a terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador.
But that issue produced none of the fireworks from last week's debate.
Instead, the president turned his fire on Mr. Romney, questioning what his foreign policy really is.
"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.
The Times/Zogby Poll, however, found Mr. Romney's supporters were substantially more enthusiastic about backing him than Mr. Obama's supporters were, which signals a volatile race that will likely come down to the size of voter turnout.
Mr. Obama has staunched the bleeding from his disastrous performance in the first debate, but didn't appear to get a major boost from what polls said was a win for him.
Mr. Romney, however, has clearly benefitted from both debates. His favorability ratings have improved dramatically, and the Real Clear Politics average now shows him above Mr. Obama for the first time in this race in favorability, 50.5 to 50.
With no more debates, the fight now turns to television ads and to personal appearances by the two men, who will spend the final two weeks visiting those states deemed critical to the electoral college math.
Ohio, Virginia and Florida continue to loom as the chief battlegrounds, but Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are considered within reach of both. Mr Obama is trying to put Arizona and North Carolina in play, while Republicans want to force the president to have to defend Pennsylvania.
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