By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 10/22/12 06:32 PM EDT
The final presidential debate Monday night could be the last opportunity for President Obama and Mitt Romney to shake up a race that seems destined for a photo finish.
It will also give the candidates their only remaining chance to speak directly to millions of voters just two weeks before the election.
Tracking polls headed into Monday's showdown, a 90-minute discussion of foreign policy in Boca Raton, Fla., give a slight edge to the Republican challenger, but the president maintains a small lead in critical battlegrounds like Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa — states that would likely prevent Romney from capturing the necessary electoral votes to take the White House.
That puts the pressure on both candidates heading into Monday night.
Obama has a dual mission: paint Romney as incapable as commander in chief, along with rallying support from independents and undecided voters who are generally less concerned about foreign policy than the economy and have been breaking for the Republican nominee in recent weeks.
And Romney has his own challenge: He is taking on the commander in chief who approved the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, something that eluded former President George W. Bush.
Obama also has the power of the presidency — which includes receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, ending the war in Iraq and fostering relationships with world leaders — behind him.
But he's also vulnerable on issues like Libya, where the president has been on the defensive for weeks about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Meanwhile, some of Romney's biggest stumbles on the campaign trail have come when trying to engage on foreign policy, from a gaffe-filled international tour this summer in which he questioned England's security presence at the Olympics, to his strong criticism of Obama in the hours immediately after Benghazi attack. He also received criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for calling Russia the United States' biggest geopolitical foe.
In the second debate, Romney again fumbled his criticism of the president's response to the Libya attack when moderator Candy Crowley corrected a semantic point about when the president first used the phrase "acts of terror."
Romney, however, has hammered Obama for not having a strong enough relationship with Israel while being too deferential to China.
Obama met with his debate prep team for 45 minutes Monday morning before leaving Camp David for Florida, according to a pool report.
He will be relaxing with friends Marty Nesbitt and Mike Ramos at the hotel before the debate. First lady Michelle Obama had a campaign event in Davie, Fla., before heading to Boca Raton for the event.
She and the president will be having steak and potatoes for dinner — the same meal Obama had before his aggressive performance in the second debate.
Romney, meanwhile, spent Monday afternoon at his hotel with his family. He had a veggie burger, Cajun fries and a shake for lunch, according to reports.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said Monday's debate is "critical" to both sides.
"The election nationally is in a dead-heat tie at 47 percent apiece," Jillson said. "And While Obama enjoys a bit of an advantage in the swing states, it's close enough that a poor performance can change the dynamics for either candidate. And there's not much time to turn things around if you have a bad night. "
Jillson said that normally a foreign-policy debate would be "advantage Obama" because "he's got a depth of knowledge that Romney doesn't have."
But with the administration's muddling of the Libya debate, Obama might have to go on the defensive more than he would like.
"In an election this close and in an economy and national security environment as ambiguous as this as, there are openings for both sides," Jillson said.
Openings that both men will look to take advantage of, although probably not as forcefully as they did in their second meeting. At that townhall-style debate in New York, the two men confronted each other directly and aggressively, which could prove more difficult Monday night, when they'll be seated at a table instead of free to roam the auditorium.
Even Obama supporters are downplaying expectations, maintaining that the president has much to lose in Monday night's debate.
"No doubt the pressure is on," said one former administration official. "All eyes will be on this one to see who will have the momentum coming out of the race and into the final stretch."
Another former White House official added, "There's this notion that Romney has gone over a tipping point of momentum, so it's just a matter of 'Can he make up enough ground in time for the election?'
"If you buy into this narrative that the momentum is with Romney, then the president has more to lose," said the former White House official. "Obama needs to find a way to put an end to the narrative and really get Romney off his game."
The Romney campaign has been looking to project that confidence in the build-up to the debate. On Sunday, the Republican nominee and his staff took a break from debate prep for a game of beach football.
"It was a sign to the president, 'We're all set and ready to debate,' " said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
And Republican strategists say the pressure is squarely on Obama's shoulders.
Matt Schlapp, an adviser in the Bush White House, said the president's stumble in the first debate was not unlike Bush's first debate loss to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), which "seemed to give the Kerry campaign a breath of fresh air."
"But while Bush had an off night, Obama's performance was a disaster," Schlapp said. "Now the pressure is really on Obama to do something that changes Romney's momentum; he's up in the polls, leading in key swing states, and the only way to halt that now is to show that Gov. Romney is somehow unqualified, which is going to be hard to do."
The Romney campaign says it will look to challenge the president’s record on international relations.
“At the 2008 presidential debates, candidate Obama promised to implement a foreign policy that would protect our interests and allies abroad. But four years later, America stands weakened around the world, our safety threatened, our allies increasingly isolated and hostile nations emboldened,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg in an email.
Former Sen. George LeMieux, the Republican who represented Florida until last year, said that Obama "needs to change the dynamic of the race" in the debate.
"The pressure is on the president," LeMieux said in an interview on Monday. "The momentum of the campaign has shifted, Romney is coming from behind and he's going to need to do something to make some news to change the arc of the campaign."
In terms of foreign policy, LeMieux said the last few months "have not been good for the president," pointing to the situations in Libya and Syria.
"It does muddle what he's been trying to say," LeMieux said. "He's lost his message."
LeMieux said Romney needs take the same posture as the two previous debates and show why their are differences between the president's policies and his policies."
Romney is expected to aggressively push Obama on Chinese trade issues — an opportunity to pivot back to his economic messaging and appeal to the swing voters in the battleground states.
“The challenge for this debate is swing voters don’t care about foreign policy compared to what’s going on with the economy,” said Bonjean. “Anything Romney can do to raise his economy vision and … look at China taking U.S. manufacturing jobs, pledging to create a business-friendly environment, helps him in the Midwestern battleground states. If he’s able to emphasize a strong economy is a good foreign policy, that will be key.”
According to the Romney campaign, the Republican challenger will continue debate prep Monday in Florida. He did a walk-through of the debate site Monday afternoon and will have dinner with his family in the evening.
The president flew to Palm Beach on Monday morning aboard Air Force One with top campaign staff, including chief political strategist David Axelrod, pollster Joel Benenson and speechwriters Ben Rhodes and Jon Favreau.
— This story was last updated at 4:32 p.m.