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Originally published October 21, 2012 at 9:17 PM | Page modified October 22, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Close race raises stakes of final presidential debate

It sounded weeks ago like a mismatch. The final presidential debate would focus on foreign policy — a sitting president who'd overseen...

The Washington Post

Final presidential debate

Today 6-7:30 p.m. Presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., to focus on foreign policy. Moderator: CBS' "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer.
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WASHINGTON — It sounded weeks ago like a mismatch.

The final presidential debate would focus on foreign policy — a sitting president who'd overseen the death of Osama bin Laden pitted against a one-term governor, so new to diplomatic thinking that he'd managed to offend a good chunk of Britain during a brief trip this summer.

Monday night's debate doesn't look like a mismatch anymore.

Instead, when President Obama meets Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Fla., he will face an opponent who has already made up tremendous ground on the subject by criticizing Obama as weak, waffling and distracted by his re-election goals.

Before the two men first debated Oct. 3, Obama held a 15-point lead over Romney on the question of who is more capable of managing foreign affairs. After Obama's listless performance, a Pew Research Center poll found the gap had narrowed to a slender 4 points.

On Monday, the two candidates will share a stage for the last time. The race could not be closer.

On Sunday, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the candidates tied, each with 47 percent of likely voters. Before the debates began, Obama led the same poll by 3 points.

In this debate, Obama could face the opposite of the situation many envisioned weeks earlier. Instead of lending him credibility, his commander-in-chief role could make him more vulnerable, opening Obama to questions about a range of unresolved crises.

Romney is likely to renew criticism of the administration's reaction to a Sept. 11 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at a mission in Benghazi.

And Obama is also likely to face questions about the civil war in Syria, a recent assassination in Lebanon and possible signals that Iran may be willing to bargain over the future of its nuclear program.

The White House on Saturday denied a New York Times report that said the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to hold one-on-one talks about that program. The report said Iran wanted to wait until after the election for talks to begin.

"It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a written statement.

The Reuters news service reported Iran also had denied the report.

Foreign-policy questions played a significant role in the last presidential debate, held last Tuesday on Long Island, N.Y. Romney was caught flat-footed with an overly broad statement that Obama had taken two weeks to label the attack in Benghazi an "act of terror."

Romney was corrected by moderator Candy Crowley: Although Obama did not directly call the attack terrorism the next day, he did say the United States will not retreat from "acts of terror."

Since then, Romney has said little about Libya on the campaign trail. Advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking, said Romney deliberately turned his focus away from Libya and toward the domestic economy and gas prices. His arguments on those issues had polled well among viewers last week, the advisers said. But Libya is almost certain to come up again Monday night.

Romney's advisers have said data they have collected from focus groups in the swing state of Ohio suggest that voters, especially women, think Obama is hiding something on Libya.

Romney's allies are making that point already, raising questions about the administration's shifting explanations of the Benghazi attack and the failure to offer greater security for American workers there.

In an Internet ad released last week, the "SuperPAC" American Crossroads used the classic language of a Washington scandal: "What did the president know and when did he know it"

Obama also may try, once again, to portray Romney as politically calculating for using the fatal attack to score points.

He may also seek to make the case that Romney is unschooled in the sophisticated intelligence provided to presidents or the heavy decisions expected of them.

Senate Democrats picked up that theme over the weekend, criticizing the release by House Republicans of security details about U.S. diplomatic operations in Libya.

Beyond Libya, each candidate has articulated a very different role for America in the world, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined the U.S. presence overseas for a decade are either finished or fading fast.

The challenge for Obama and Romney will likely be explaining their foreign-policy priorities in ways that resonate with voters preoccupied with economic issues and a growing national debt that undermines the country's ability to act abroad.

China heads the list of issues that straddle foreign and domestic concerns, and both candidates are likely to steer discussion of the country's rising economic influence to the American economy.

Last week, Romney called China a "cheater," and said that on the first day of his administration he would brand China a "currency manipulator." That is a mostly symbolic snub, but one with possible trade repercussions.

Obama and Romney have tried to score domestic political points with tough talk on China — mostly relating to lost American jobs — that skims over the complexities of the nations' intertwined economic relationship.

Obama claimed last week that he has put "unprecedented trade pressure on China," although he has stopped short of the steps taken by the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who did designate China a currency manipulator.

Too much criticism could sour the delicate political relationship with China just as that country chooses a new 10-year leader, and risks reducing U.S. leverage to win Chinese support on the Security Council for tough sanctions against Iran and other policy priorities.

Both candidates are also likely to address Europe's debt crisis, a drag on the already precarious U.S. recovery.

Europe's economic malaise is increasingly seen as a U.S. national-security problem, and one Obama tried to blunt earlier this year with intensive negotiations with the continent's leaders.

On Syria, Obama is likely to denounce President Bashar Assad, who still counts on Russian support, but pledge no new U.S. help to oust him.

Romney has said Obama has been too timid in dealing with Assad, while being too hard on Israel next door when it comes to talking peace with the Palestinians. And Romney has endorsed arming the Syrian rebels.

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