BOCA RATON, Fl. (CBS) -- The third and final presidential debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, which begins at 9 p.m. ET Monday night, will focus on foreign policy. For Mitt Romney, it's an opportunity to portray President Obama as a weak leader on the world stage whose administration botched the response to the Libya terror attack. For Mr. Obama, it's a chance to portray his rival as a naive foreign policy neophyte willing to put politics ahead of national security.
The debate comes amid signs that Romney has somewhat narrowed the president's foreign policy advantage. A Pew poll released last week found that Mr. Obama leads Romney 47 percent to 43 percent when it comes to who can make wiser decisions on foreign policy. That's down from a 15 point advantage for the president on the issue in the same poll in September.
The 90-minute debate, which will be moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer and take place at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., will be divided into six 15-minute segments. The planned topics: "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.
Foreign policy has been something of an afterthought during a campaign when the candidates have largely focused on the economy, which voters say is their top concern. Michael O'Hanlon, director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said he is surprised that Romney has not more aggressively sought to link foreign policy to economic issues at home.
"I thought he could have made a contrast with Obama by going to Germany himself, talking to business and economic leaders," he said. "That would have been a way to project this image of focus and reinforce the overall notion that the campaign was all about the economy."
Romney didn't do so. Instead, his rhetoric about the president on foreign policy has repeatedly stressed presidential weakness: According to the GOP presidential nominee, the president "pursue[s] a strategy of leading from behind," has been engaged in an "apology tour" in office, has been "passive" in the Middle East and has been unwilling to "stand up to China." Romney botched his attack on the administration's seemingly-confused response to the Libya attack during the second presidential debate - giving Mr. Obama arguably his strongest moment in that debate last week - but you can expect him to be well prepared to try to land blows on the president over the issue Monday. (The circumstances of that attack are even now not yet entirely clear, though documents released over the weekend back up the administration's initial response.) In addition to the administration's response to the attack, Romney may follow the lead of House Republicans and raise questions over whether the White House turned down diplomatic requests for increased security as part of an effort to normalize relations with Libya.
But Romney has vulnerabilities. For one, the president can respond to his Libya criticism by playing the commander-in-chief card, as he did in the second debate: The notion that the Obama administration played politics or purposely misled the public over the attack, the stone-faced president said, is "offensive." That argument underlines the president's core foreign policy argument against his rival, which boils down to this: I'm out here making the hard choices - including ordering the mission that took out Osama bin Laden - while you take potshots from the sidelines.
Mr. Obama has tried to use Romney's attacks on his foreign policy diplomacy against the Republican nominee, saying that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan want "to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering so dearly." That's a potentially resonant argument to a war-weary public, and Romney has given Mr. Obama ammunition to make it: As Mr. Obama likes to note, Romney labeled Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"You don't call Russia our number one enemy - not al Qaeda, Russia - unless you're stuck in a cold war mind warp," Mr. Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. The president added a knife-twisting reference to Romney's gaffe-plagued foreign trip: "You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally." Mr. Obama may also point out that many of Romney's foreign policy advisers have ties to the Bush administration.
"When Romney attacks Obama for diplomacy, Obama can just say, 'if you think it's a bad idea to try to get along with people, go ahead and go back to George W. Bush and see how that works,'" said O'Hanlon. "I think that just plays into Obama's hand."
In a memo released at midnight by the Obama campaign, Sen. John Kerry previewed the president's attacks, writing that Romney "offers nothing but endless bluster and a record of dangerous blunders, failing at every turn to show he's up to the challenge...He is an extreme and expedient candidate who lacks the judgment and vision so vital for the Oval Office, and he's at the top of the most inexperienced foreign policy ticket to run for president and vice president in decades."
For Romney, who does indeed lack foreign policy experience, the goal Monday night will be in part to make voters comfortable with the idea of him as commander in chief. Foreign policy is not Romney's strength, and while he has been huddled with his foreign policy advisers in advance of the debate, there's no denying that he is on firmer footing when the topic is the economy.
Romney laid out his foreign policy vision during a speech in Virginia earlier this month, where he called for more arming of rebels in Syria, said he would tighten sanctions on Iran and said he would improve the U.S. relationship with Israel. Romney has at times struggled to differentiate his foreign policy plans from those of the president: On Afghanistan, for example, he says he supports the 2014 timeline for U.S. withdrawal of troops but opposes the fact that the president set the deadline.
One clear fault line comes on defense spending. Romney has vowed to spend at least four percent of gross domestic product on the military, which could add more than $2 trillion to the defense budget over a decade. Mr. Obama has attacked Romney for advocating spending money the military says it doesn't need. But the promise holds appeal to defense contractors and other military stakeholders and could help Romney win votes in Virginia and other states with a significant military presence.
One wildcard, meanwhile, will be how the candidates handle a New York Times report over the weekend which, citing administration officials, said the U.S. and Iran had agreed to one-on-one negotiations over Iran's nuclear program starting after the presidential election. The White House denied a final agreement has been reached. While the report would seem to signal progress in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, Romney could portray Iran's promises of talks after the election as an empty gesture designed to buy time.
Both candidates have sought to portray themselves as "tough on China" and their opponent as weak. Romney has said that unlike the Obama administration, he would label the nation a "currency manipulator" on his first day in office. The counterargument being made by the Obama administration, said Dr. James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, is that "[d]eclaring China a currency manipulator is likely to boomerang on the United States because China has multiple ways to retaliate."
Of course, choosing a side on that particular issue and many others requires a level of foreign policy understanding that most Americans don't possess. (Says Lindsay, diplomatically: "It's safe to say that knowledge about various foreign policy issues varies widely across the public.") For the candidates, the details may be less important than the presentation: Most Americans may not know where they stand on exactly which sanctions should be put in place against Iran, but they do want to feel as though their president is both strong and smart on the world stage. O'Hanlon argues that "Romney has the harder hand to play" in the debate because Mr. Obama has clear foreign policy victories on his resume -- ending the Iraq war, capturing bin Laden -- along with relatively few missteps.
"Obama's in a good place to play a good solid defensive hand," he said. And the president is poised to play it: Asked last week about his debate strategy for Monday, he quipped, "Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden."
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