BOCA RATON, Fla. -- President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney sparred vigorously on often subtle differences on foreign policy Monday as they met in the final debate of an agonizingly close race.
Mr. Obama worked to paint his opponent as an inexperienced and shifting voice on international affairs. In sharp contrast to their first debate he was more often the aggressor throughout the evening. Parrying those attacks, Mr. Romney often shifted the focus to the domestic economy, arguing that American deficits and lagging growth were national security threats as well as economic problems.
Mr. Romney repeatedly asserted that the United States was weaker now in the eyes of the world because of administration lapses in the Middle East, and particularly in the case of Iran. But he offered few specifics on how a Romney agenda would differ from the incumbent's in dealing with trouble spots such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The rivals sat next to one another at a table facing moderator Bob Schieffer, the CBS chief Washington correspondent. While the 90 minutes included some sharp exchanges and instances of the candidates talking over one another, it lacked the raw, acerbic tone of their last encounter in the town hall format last week at Hofstra University.
The evening started with a question on Libya, a subject of a raw exchange of charges between the two campaigns over recent weeks. But Mr. Romney avoided his previous attacks on the administration for lapses in security at the Benghazi consulate and his campaign's persistent, sharp questioning over explanations of the motives of the attack.
Instead he offered a broader, if less detailed indictment of the administration policies, contending his opponent had failed to rise to the challenges of a region in turmoil
Citing the dramatic transitions of the Arab Spring, he said, "What we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region."
He made an early point of congratulating Mr. Obama for the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but said, "We can't kill our way out of this mess."
"We're going to have to a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism,'' he said.
"Gov. Romney, I'm glad you agree that we have been successful in going after al-Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep American safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East," Mr. Obama said.
"Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture," Mr. Romney replied.
Mr. Obama chided him for having once described Russia as the nation's greatest threat abroad. Mr. Romney said that he had called Russia a geo-strategic threat, a distinction he said from the national security threat posed by Iran.
"Governor, when it comes to foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Romney repeatedly said he would do a better job of projecting strength abroad, but he seemed to take pains to escape an image of Cold War truculence, emphasizing several times his determination to avoid armed conflicts.
On Iran he said he would have imposed tougher sanctions sooner than the administration but he did not specify what new steps he would take to deter Iran from pursuit of nuclear capability. He dismissed the president's criticism saying, "Attacking me is not an agenda."
Mr. Romney said he would strengthen the military, complaining that the Navy had fewer ships than at anytime since 1917, and the Air Force fewer planes than it had after World War II.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that there were fewer ships, but said that was because modern warfare makes more use of submarines and aircraft carriers. He noted sarcastically that it was also true that the military had fewer horses and bayonets than it did in the World War I era.
In another exchange, Mr. Romney returned to the charge proclaimed in the title to his campaign book, "No Apology."
"Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to Turkey and Iraq," he said. "And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closets friend in the region, but you went to the other nations."
Mr. Obama noted that he had visited Israel as a candidate -- "And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers," he said, referring to the campaign activity that accompanied Mr. Romney's summer visit to Israel.
Mr. Romney repeatedly pivoted from foreign affairs to the domestic economy, taking any chance to criticize his opponent on the pace of the recovery.
Mr. Obama turned to the domestic scene himself late in the debate as he cited his familiar criticism of Mr. Romney's opposition to a bailout of the auto industry, criticism that Mr. Romney insisted was inaccurate in one of many exchanges that reprised issues from their previous two debates.
The goals for the two candidates were clear before they took the Lynn University stage. Mr. Romney was intent on characterizing the president as a weak leader who had invited challenges abroad and failed to adequately support U.S. allies, such as Israel. Mr. Obama sought to drive home the point that Mr. Romney was not a plausible commander-in-chief, that his positions on issues from Libya to Iran had repeatedly shifted, united only in their utility as cudgels against the administration.
The exchanges sparked by moderator Schieffer marked the last joint appearance of the candidates with two weeks to go in a race that appeared to remain neck-and-neck nationally and in the key swing states expected to determine the electoral vote winner. But going into the evening, whatever polling momentum that did exist was on Mr. Romney's side.
The was a distinct contrast to the pre-debate environment, filled with accounts of a foundering Romney campaign, reeling from the release of the "47 percent'' videotape -- recorded only a few miles from the debate site -- with Mr. Romney's derisive characterization of half of the electorate. The Republican also stumbled with his hasty criticism in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack that the debate revisited Monday night.
Then came Denver. Their first debate produced no memorable zingers from either candidate, nor any major gaffes or mistakes. But Mr. Romney's strong performance alongside a showing that even Mr. Obama acknowledged as listless shook up perceptions of the race, and moved Mr. Romney into contention nationally, and into leads or striking distance in one key state after another.
The president managed a more vigorous performance in last week's town hall encounter in New York. Mr. Romney continued his aggressive criticism of Mr. Obama on the economy, but once again failed in an attempt to score points off the Benghazi attack. He insisted that Mr. Obama had failed to call the attack an act of terrorism in his initial accounts, when, as moderator Candy Crowley noted at the time, Mr. Obama had in fact used that term in his first Rose Garden statement responding to it. Mr. Romney appeared to let that disagreement rest Monday night.
Patrolling the debate spin room immediately afterword, Jen Psaki, Mr. Obama's campaign press secretary, predicted that voters would see Mr. Romney as having failed to present himself as a potential commander-in-chief. Eric Fehrnstrom, Mr. Romney's communications strategist, insisted that it was Mr. Romney who appeared more presidential. He acknowledged that Mr. Obama was the night's more frequent aggressor and contended that that was because he "came in with the agenda of a candidate who is falling behind."
It will take some time to get a sense of whether the debate reactions will move numbers in any lasting way in this tight race. A George Washington University/Politico survey released earlier Monday was one of several that showed that Mr. Obama went into the night with an advantage on foreign policy. Likely voters in 10 swing states said they trusted him over Mr. Romney on foreign policy by a margin of 51-42 percent.
The bad news for Mr. Obama in that context is that voters this year have consistently ranked foreign policy low on their list of priorities, far behind jobs and the economy as issues likely to determine their votes. The same survey found Mr. Romney with an overall lead of 49 percent to 47 percent in those battlegrounds. Mr. Romney enjoys razor thin leads in the compilations of polling averages maintained by RealClearPolitics and pollster.com.
The persistently narrow competition is underscored by the results some of the recent components of those averages. Among either national surveys released since the beginning of the weekend, Mr. Romney led in three, Mr. Obama in another three, and in two more, they were tied.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published October 23, 2012 4:30 AM