BOCA RATON, Fla. -- A campaign dominated by the economy heads into its stretch run with a final debate focused on foreign policy, an issue that was supposed to be an administration strong point but one that the Romney campaign has battled to turn against the president.
Sunday's talk shows offered possible previews of tonight's exchanges. While President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were preoccupied with final preparations for their third face-off, their surrogates traded pointed charges on controversies abroad, notably Libya and Iran.
Two Romney allies, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., continued to press the GOP attacks on the administration's performance and explanations of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that brought the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Mr. Graham called the events "a case study of a breakdown of national security," in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." Mr. Rubio repeated the GOP critique that the president had allowed Iran to buy time for its nuclear program with ineffective sanctions.
"I think [Mr. Romney is] very cognizant of the fact that Iran has used negotiations in the past to buy themselves time," Mr. Rubio said on "Meet the Press." "I think under a President Romney, you would not have to haggle with the White House about sanctions."
Obama aides defended the administration, contending that the criticisms distorted the facts surrounding the Benghazi attacks as well as the protracted confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., charged that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had been reckless in releasing internal U.S. documents on the Libya situation that included the names of Libyans working with the U.S.
"Darrell Issa does a document dump on his website with sensitive information about those in Libya who are helping keep America safe," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "I mean, it shows the lengths many will go to politicize this tragic situation."
Obama strategist David Axelrod also bristled at the attacks.
"The way they've handled this issue is disgraceful," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
He denied Republican suggestions of political calculation in the administration's descriptions of the episode.
"There's only one candidate here who's tried to exploit it from the beginning," Mr. Axelrod said, referring to Mr. Romney's criticism as soon as the first reports of the attack emerged.
Mr. Romney faced criticism at the time for what critics saw as a rush to score points from the attacks.
The bedrock of Mr. Romney's campaign is his indictment of the president's response to a lagging economy and his contention that his business acumen better equipped him to reinvigorate the country's job growth. But that line of attack has always existed alongside his contention that Mr. Obama's foreign policy had displayed weakness. The title of Mr. Romney's campaign book, "No Apologies," refers to his oft-repeated contention that Mr. Obama had opened his administration with an "apology tour" for U.S. actions in the past that had invited confrontation from foreign rivals. While independent fact-checkers have said that Mr. Romney's characterizations of a variety of Obama statements as apologies are inaccurate, Mr. Romney has been undeterred.
He also has questioned the administration's response to the deadly civil strife in Syria and contended repeatedly that Mr. Obama has been insufficiently supportive of Israel and has jeopardized its security by not being more forceful against Iran.
Mr. Obama has rejected all of those charges, arguing that he has engineered tough sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. Despite his conspicuously strained relationship with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, he maintains that his administration has been unstinting in its support for its Mideast partner. The Democrat maintains that the strength of his foreign policy is demonstrated by his ability to end the unpopular war in Iraq and set a timetable for substantial withdrawal from Afghanistan.
And, of course, Mr. Obama is sure to remind tonight's viewers of the fact that as commander in chief, he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani refuge, an event that seemed at the time to have insulated him against decades of Republican assertions that their party could be counted on to be stronger on defense.
Democrats contend that Mr. Romney is an implausible critic when it comes to issues abroad. Beyond his direct policy experience, they cite the Republican's most high-profile campaign excursion into foreign policy -- his trips to Great Britain, Poland and Israel -- which opened with a public relations stumble as the former head of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics irked his British hosts by questioning their ability to stage a successful competition in London.
On issues that more closely overlap with his central economic message, Mr. Romney has also criticized the administration for failing to be more aggressive in promoting trade in general and for not doing more to press Beijing on the value of its currency and failing to protect U.S. firms against intellectual property theft by China.
In a perhaps unfortunate coincidence for the Romney campaign, the debate, at Lynn University, takes place in the same town where a pirated videotape was recorded showing the Republican's dismissive statement about the "47 percent" of Americans who he cited as content to be dependent on government.
In an interview, an Obama campaign adviser pointed to a less noted portion of the videotape as evidence of what she called Mr. Romney's intent to politicize foreign policy.
"Romney made it clear [in the videotaped remarks] he was looking for an opening to attack the president," said Michele Flournoy, an Obama campaign foreign policy adviser and former deputy secretary of defense for policy.
The candidates' final meeting comes as the outcome of their struggle appears balanced on a knife's edge. The Gallup Poll shows a significant lead for Mr. Romney, 52 percent to 45 percent, but other surveys find the race essentially tied. The average compiled by RealClearPolitics finds a deadlock that couldn't be much closer: Obama, 47.1 percent; Romney, 46.9 percent. In the battleground states, the margins are similarly narrow.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published October 22, 2012 4:00 AM