Obama, Romney ready for round three

President Obama and Mitt Romney face each other onstage for the last time on Monday evening, when they meet at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., for their third televised debate.

The importance of the occasion cannot be overstated. With the presidential race balanced on a knife-edge, this will be the last big set-piece of the campaign. 

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Sunday showed the race tied, Obama and Romney each claiming the support of 47 percent of likely voters.

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Never again will either man have the chance to reach an audience anywhere close to the likely viewership of around 60 million people. A particularly strong performance, or even a single memorable gaffe, could decide the outcome on Election Day.

Obama spent Saturday and Sunday at Camp David with no public events scheduled. Romney arrived in Florida on Friday and will remain there until the debate is over.

The Obama campaign was shaken by the president’s sub-par performance in the first debate, in Denver on Dec. 3. But he calmed some Democratic nerves with a much stronger showing at last week’s second encounter.

A Gallup poll released last Friday indicated that Americans who said they watched the second debate felt Obama won, by 51 percent to 38. After the first debate, the same organization found viewers awarded the win to Romney by an even wider margin, 72 percent to 20.

“Coming into this debate, you are seeing two pretty well-matched candidates each with a notch on his belt. Now you have Round Three,” said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor who is an expert on presidential debates. “Even little things could have some pretty major consequences.”

The debate will focus on foreign policy and, like the previous two, last for 90 minutes. 

It will be divided into six 15-minute segments, two of which will deal with “the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism.” 

One each will be devoted to the rise of China; Israel and Iran; and Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first segment will be more general, being devoted to “America’s role in the world.” CBS veteran Bob Schieffer will serve as moderator this time around.

Foreign policy has assumed a more prominent role in this campaign than seemed likely at the outset. Although the economy remains Topic A, the recent attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, has become a deeply contentious issue.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to one-on-one talks about the latter’s nuclear program, to be held after the election.

Officials from both nations have denied the report, but the newspaper has not resiled from it.

Renewed controversy about Benghazi erupted late last week when conservatives seized upon an answer Obama gave during an interview with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show."

Stewart suggested to Obama that “even you would admit it was not the optimal response” from the administration to the attack. 

“Here is what I will say: If four Americans get killed, it is not optimal,” Obama replied. “And we are going to fix it, all of it.”

Asked whether Romney should emphasize the Benghazi issue in the debate, Matt Schlapp, a former political director for President George W. Bush, said:

“I think it comes up not because Gov. Romney needs to bring it up but because the Obama administration and the president have a growing public relations and perhaps legal problem. They ought to be able to explain to people like me why it looks like they used subterfuge to get through a tragedy.”

The Obama administration vociferously denies any suggestion of subterfuge, insisting that its representatives always gave the most accurate information that was available at the time.

Obama has obvious strengths, as well as vulnerabilities, on foreign policy. The successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011 is almost certainly the single most popular act of his presidency. It helped him build a significant lead in the polls as the candidate best equipped to handle international affairs.

There has been some evidence that his edge has been dulled recently. A poll from the Pew Research Center last Thursday showed that Obama led Romney on the question of who would make better foreign-policy decisions by 4 percentage points, 47-43, among registered voters. In September, the president’s advantage was 15 percentage points.

Still, Democrats insist the territory continues to favor Obama.

“When you are the incumbent president, when you can say, ‘I am commander in chief,’ you have an advantage,” said Steve Elmendorf, who was deputy campaign manager for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during his 2004 presidential bid. “You’re always at an advantage if you are leader of the free world.”

Democrats and Republicans alike expect both candidates to use foreign-policy specifics as the jumping-off point for broader arguments about their own leadership skills — and their rival’s deficiencies.

Obama will almost certainly cite the bin Laden operation not just as a crucial national-security victory but also as evidence of his own steadiness and determination. 

Romney, for his part, is likely to cite continuing challenges, like Iran’s ongoing nuclear program, to argue that Obama has been ineffectual abroad. This lack of effectiveness is an echo — at least in the Republican’s view — of Obama’s failure to spark fast enough economic growth on the home front. 

A campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, previewed some lines of attack Romney was likely to use in the debate.

“The country can't afford four more years of ‘leading from behind’ and weakening of our military,” Saul told The Hill. “President Obama's failed leadership isn't just on the economic front: Our position around the world is weaker than it was when he came into office.”

Elmendorf, the Democratic strategist, contended that both candidates are now familiar with each other’s debating style and that this makes a draw the most likely outcome on Monday evening. But he acknowledged that there are no guarantees.

“Either candidate could say something stupid at any debate,” he said. “And that does change things.”