(CBS News) Kicking off the final debate before the presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney exchanged harsh words Monday night over the best path for guiding American foreign policy, with Mr. Obama accusing Romney of "wrong and reckless leadership" and Romney targeting the president over his vision for the Middle East.
Right out of the gate of this third presidential debate, moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer, each candidate was swift in his attempts to undermine his rival's foreign leadership credentials.
Mr. Obama launched an aggressive assault of Romney's foreign policy record, which he cast as muddled and regressive, and called for "strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."
"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back," said Mr. Obama, referring to a comment Romney made once about the threat Russia poses to American interests. "Governor, when it comes to our 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."
"You say that you're not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq. But just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now," Mr. Obama said. "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn't be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies."
Romney, meanwhile, questioned Mr. Obama's reaction to the Arab Spring, and argued that"what we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region."
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said, before calling for a "comprehensive and robust strategy" to help "the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism."
"With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East," he said. "But instead, we've seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events. Of course we see in Syria, 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in -- in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against -- against our people there, four people dead."
Returning repeatedly to the nuclear threat in Iran, Romney argued that the nation is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon" and that Mr. Obama had "wasted" the last four years.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, countered that the sanctions his administration has imposed on Iran have been working, leading to the nation to its "weakest point economically, strategically, militarily than in many years."
"As long as I'm President of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," he said.
The 90-minute debate, which was held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., was divided into six 15-minute segments. The topics include "America's role in the world," Afghanistan and Pakistan, "The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World," Israel and Iran, and "The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism," which has been allotted two segments.
According to a new CBS News poll released just hours before the debate, President Obama leads Romney among likely voters 50 to 41 percent on the question of who would do a better job on foreign policy. Likely voters also viewed Mr. Obama as stronger on terrorism and security: 49 percent said Mr. Obama would do a better job, and 42 percent said Romney would. On U.S. policy toward Iran, Mr. Obama edged Romney 46 percent to 43 percent among likely voters.
On U.S. policy toward China, a frequent Romney discussion point on the campaign trail, the two candidates are even at 44 percent. On Israel, Romney has an edge over the president, with 46 percent to Mr. Obama's 42 percent.
Mr. Obama also holds a lead on which candidate would better handle an international crisis: 38 percent of likely voters said they had a lot of confidence in him to do so, compared with 30 percent who expressed the same level of confidence in Romney. Still, a majority of voters express at least some confidence in both the President (62 percent) and Romney's ability (58 percent) to handle an international crisis.
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