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Originally published October 22, 2012 at 9:57 PM | Page modified October 23, 2012 at 10:33 AM

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Zingers, barbs and bayonets in final presidential debate

President Obama seemed to use the authority of his office — and some harsh, dismissive lines — to put Republican challenger Mitt Romney on his heels in their final debate.

The Washington Post

Complete video of debate

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President Obama seemed to use the authority of his office — and a dismissive tone — to put Republican challenger Mitt Romney on his heels in their final presidential debate Monday night, telling Romney he didn't understand foreign-policy problems as well as he does.

That idea underlaid some of the night's harshest lines from Obama. He scoffed at Romney's assertion that Russia remained the country's chief geopolitical foe: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."

And, when Romney asserted the United States had fewer naval ships than decades ago, Obama retorted that his opponent didn't understand the modern navy. There were fewer ships, he said, but also fewer "horses and bayonets."

"We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on 'em," Obama said. "The question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships."

Romney, for his part, returned to a criticism that Obama had been a weak and vacillating actor on the world stage. He said Obama had shown vulnerability to bad actors around the world, and done too little to support freedom movements in places like Iran.

"But unfortunately, in nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago," Romney said.

But Romney also took a notably softer and more conciliatory tone than in the past, stressing at several points his desire for peace in the world. "I want to see peace. I want to see growing peace in this country as our objective," he said in his closing statement. "Promote principles of peace, to make the world a safer place."

He also picked up a theme of bipartisanship, with words that might have come from Obama's let's-fix-Washington campaign four years ago. "We've got to have a president who can work across the aisle," Romney said. "Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back."

At several points, Romney conceded he would have done some of the same things Obama did. He said he would also have instituted economic sanctions against Iran, but earlier.

Romney said he also would have supported the military mission that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan. And he agreed with Obama's use of unmanned drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists overseas: "I support that entirely, and feel the president was right."

The debate veered, at times, away from its foreign-policy theme. A question about his plans to pay for a military expansion led Romney to talk about repealing Obama's health-care plan.

At another point, Romney repeated all five of the points in his plan to create jobs. Obama engaged with a point about education.

"Let me get back to foreign policy," moderator Bob Schieffer said.

Romney interrupted: He had another point to make about education in Massachusetts while he was governor. "I was proud that our fourth-graders came out number one out of all 50 states in English," Romney said.

The debate began with an exchange about Libya, in which the Republican and Democrat seemed to trade places.

Romney seemed to attack Obama's policy as too warlike — saying Obama had focused too much on killing enemies and too little on softer uses of American power.

"We can't kill our way out of this mess," in the Middle East, Romney said. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive (strategy) ... to help the world of Islam reject this violent extremism." He suggested working on economic development, gender equality and other issues to reduce violence in the Muslim world.

Obama, by contrast, defended a military solution he used in Libya last summer, organizing an international air campaign that helped defeat dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He attacked Romney for exactly what Romney had attacked him for earlier: vagueness and vacillating in matters of foreign policy.

"I have to tell you that your strategy, previously, is one that has been all over the map," Obama said. "And is one that is not designed to keep Americans safe."

As the debate went on, however, the two returned to more familiar roles — and familiar arguments. Romney criticized Obama for what he called an "apology tour," saying Obama had shown weakness toward bad actors in the world. He said Obama has misunderstood America's role in world history, by saying the U.S. had "dictated" to foreign countries.

"America has not dictated to other nations," he said. "We have freed other nations from dictators."

Obama, for his part, criticized Romney for being wildly inconsistent. In particular, he said Romney had previously said he would have asked Pakistan's permission before entering that country in search of Osama bin Laden. Obama, of course, ordered a mission that did not ask permission before killing bin Laden in a Pakistani hideout.

"When we do things like that, when we bring those who have harmed us to justice. That sends a message to the world," he said.

The confrontational tone of the first two debates also returned — this time, initiated first and more forcefully by Obama. At one point, he told Romney, "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong" on recent foreign-policy matters.

Romney retorted that Obama's criticisms weren't enough: "Attacking me is not an agenda."

Romney offered specifics for how he would tackle Iran's nuclear program, saying he would seek to have Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicted by a world court for inciting genocide. Romney said he would also seek to have Iranian diplomats made pariahs around the world, isolating that country diplomatically in the way South African diplomats were isolated under apartheid.

But often Romney sought to steer this foreign-policy debate toward subjects more key to his campaign: the economy, and his plans to streamline government.

Romney, in the first minutes, seemed to be less fiery than in past debates.

At several points, he said he'd agreed with Obama on foreign-policy decisions, including Obama's urging that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leave power last year. He said Obama should have done more to help Mubarak adapt to growing pressure for democracy. But, Romney said, "Once (Egypt) exploded, I felt the same as the president did."

For both, this could be their last best chance to break a close race open. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, out Monday, showed Obama and Romney effectively tied, with Obama leading by just 1 percentage point among likely voters, 49 to 48 percent.

The poll shows Romney has gained significantly on the subjects of international affairs generally, and handling terrorism specifically. At the end of September, Obama held an 11-point lead over Romney as the candidate voters trusted on terrorism.

But now, 47 percent side with Obama on the issue, 46 percent with Romney.

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