Final debate: Third time’s the charm?

Electoral placards supporting US President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are seen near Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 20, 2012, where the third and final presidential debate will be hosted on October 22. Obama and Romney began boning up on foreign policy ahead of their final debate, with the president opting for Camp David's seclusion and Romney jetting to the showdown site in Florida. As the candidates ducked off the campaign trail, they let their running mates stump for votes in the political battlegrounds that will likely determine the November 6 election.
Jewel Samad

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The first thing you notice is the plethora of signs: dozens of red, white and blue political placards dotting the media strip of Highway 1 leading into Boca Raton.

“OBAMA” they blare, and it seems that the town must be a Democratic stronghold.

But when you read the fine print, the picture changes: "Keep America FREE. Fire OBAMA." 

Monday night, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will face off on foreign policy at Lynn University here in Boca Raton, near the southern tip of the Sunshine State.

In a race that gets tighter and more perplexing every day, the debates have taken on an almost mystical significance. The first meeting, in Denver, dramatically changed the dynamic of the campaign, stopping what had seemed an Obama juggernaut and transforming almost certain defeat for Romney into a possible, even likely, win.

At Hofstra University last week Romney’s momentum was slowed a bit by a newly energized president, as well as by a few clumsy missteps on the part of the former Massachusetts governor. His “binders of women” comment may well become the best-remembered line of the entire campaign. 

But the contest in Long Island, for all its testiness, did not yield a clear winner. This, the third and final debate, will be crucial in helping voters to form their final impressions of the two candidates just two weeks before Election Day.

A new poll released on Sunday by NBC/Wall Street Journal has the two candidates tied at 47 percent each.

Monday’s event could be pivotal.

The debate topics, as reported by Politico, will include:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red Lines — Israel and Iran
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism — I
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism — II
  • The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

The campaigns agreed on those six segments, according to debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS' "Face the Nation."

"That last segment will be sort of a round up of things we didn’t get to, and it could include things like climate change, or the response to the European debt crisis," Schieffer told The Palm Beach Post.

American voters are, traditionally, less interested in foreign policy than in domestic issues, but with recent events in Libya, Syria, and Iran, not to mention a continuing war in Afghanistan, the electorate is clamoring for more information. They want to know how the two men will handle the burgeoning crises in the world, and to what extent they will, or will not, embroil the country in more international escapades.

According to a survey conducted by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, voters in the key battleground states of Ohio and Florida are keenly interested in global issues, and will be watching the debate closely. While the economy is still cited as the No. 1 priority, national security is also a major concern, especially in terms of global terrorism and Iran's nuclear weapons capacity.

Large majorities of respondents in both swing states said that foreign affairs were important because “situations in other countries can draw the United States into wars,” and “what happens in other countries can either increase or decrease the possibility of terrorism against the United States.”

The Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Libya is sure to come up in this regard. Both parties are talking about it — the Democrats are castigating the Republicans for politicizing the tragedy; the Republicans are accusing the administration of hiding information on the terrorist attack from the American public.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hinted that the Obama administration might be trying to slant the information to fit their political line. 

“One of the narratives that the Obama campaign has laid out is that Osama bin Laden is dead … and Al Qaeda is in retreat,” Rubio told host Bob Schieffer. “You start to wonder, did they … say, ‘do not allow any story to emerge that counters that narrative?'”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” top Obama adviser David Axelrod was scathing in his indictment of the Republicans’ handling of the Libya crisis. 

“There’s only one candidate here who has tried to exploit it from the beginning. Even while the flames were burning in Benghazi, Mitt Romney was sending out political press releases on this. And the whole Republican Party has followed,” he said.

Voters in the Belfer study were also concerned about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The Obama administration got some good news over the weekend: according to The New York Times, Iran and the United States have reached an agreement on one-to-one negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Over the weekend, the White House and Tehran officials denied that they reached a firm deal for talks.

Iran has been another stick Romney has used to beat the president. In March, he told a group of voters in Georgia that “If Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that’s the case.”

The Middle East will also likely be a focal point on Monday. Almost half of all Florida respondents in the Belfer Center poll said the Arab Spring would not be good for US interests, as opposed to only 27 percent who said it was a positive development. The candidates will have to show how they will engage with, and try to shape, events in that part of the world.

The Monday debate will doubtless be watched with great interest, but Americans’ fascination with foreign affairs extends only so far. According to the Belfer study, 66 percent of Florida voters said they were “not familiar” with British Prime Minister David Cameron. They scored much higher with another UK David, though — 64 percent knew and liked legendary soccer player David Beckham.

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