Obama, Romney exchange jabs on Israel, size of US military in debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney had a heated exchanges over Israel and the size of the U.S. military in their final debate, held in Florida on Monday night.

The sharpest exchanges of the evening came when Romney accused Obama of showing weakness and apologizing to the Middle East on behalf of America.

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“From the very beginning, one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran ... I think they saw weakness where they expected to find American strength,” Romney said. “And then the president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.”

Romney continued to say Obama “skipped Israel” on his “apology tour” and went on Middle Eastern TV and called the United States “dismissive and derisive.”

Obama was prepared for the frequent criticism.

“This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign,” he said.

"If we're going to talk about trips that we've taken," Obama said, "when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors. I didn’t attend fundraisers ... I went to ... the Holocaust museum there to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”

Romney also accused Obama of allowing the military to be cut to historically low levels through $1 trillion in cuts from last year’s Budget Control Act and sequestration.

“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” Romney said. “The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me."

Obama responded by saying that sequestration happened because of Congress, not his administration, and that it would not happen.

Obama also pushed against Romney’s criticism over the number of ships and planes with a zinger about increases in military capabilities.

“We also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Obama said, adding that fewer ships and planes were needed with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

“It’s not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships,” Obama said.

Romney and Obama pivoted to the economy several times during the evening.

Thirty minutes into the debate, which was designed to focus on national security and foreign affairs, both contenders brought up domestic issues on repeated occasions, indicating an awareness that the economy remains the No. 1 issue for voters.

Several times Romney tried to tie the weak economic recovery in the U.S. to America’s standing in the world.

“America must lead, and for that to happen we have to strengthen our economy here at home,” he said. “You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You can’t have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate.”

Obama, meanwhile, directly tied his opponent to the previous Republican administration.

“Both at home and abroad he has proposed wrong and reckless policies,” he said. “He’s praised George [W.] Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who ... shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century."

The president also brought up education policy, pointing out they hadn't gotten to discuss it in their previous two showdowns.

But the evening started out with Romney taking a considerably softer tone in his criticism of Obama than previous debates — and the president took advantage of that, coming out swinging.

The first question of the night was about Libya, and Romney demurred when presented with an opportunity to slam the president over his handling of the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Instead, Romney pointed to instability throughout the region, and said the U.S. should “to help the world of Islam ... reject this radical violent extremism."

Obama pounced, first saying the United States had brought together the international community to “liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years,” and pointing to the “tens of thousands of Libyans" marching to denounce the attacks in Benghazi.

“But I have to tell you,” Obama said, turning to his challenger, “your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe.”

Romney countered that his position is to pursue “the bad guys,” and noted the “rising tide of chaos ... with al Qaeda rushing in” to fill various power vacuums.

“I’m glad that you recognize al Qaeda is a threat,” Obama said. “Because a few months ago when you were asked what was the biggest geopolitical threat, you said Russia ... and the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Romney shot back, saying he had qualified Russia was a “geopolitical foe,” but that he always believed Iran was the largest threat to the United States.

“I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia,” Romney said. “And I’m certainly not going to tell [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that he’ll get more flexibility from the U.S. after the election, I’m going to tell him he’ll get more backbone.”

With both of the candidates seated, the debate had a more restrained feel than the previous two presidential showdowns. While their town-hall-style debate featured aggressive performances from both of them, Monday night saw the two men focused on policy and speaking in much more moderate tones.

Obama and Romney went back and forth on Iraq and Syria, although their differences were small and their arguments nuanced.

The president accused Romney of wanting to keep more troops on the ground, a position the GOP nominee said he has never taken.

“Here’s one thing I’ve learned about being commander in chief,” Obama said. “You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. You just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq.”

On Syria, while both agreed President Bashar Assad’s days were numbered, Romney said Obama was allowing the United Nations to take the lead.

“Syria is an opportunity for us,” Romney said. “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world ... so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us ... this has been going on for a year. ... We should have taken a leading role.”

The third and final meeting of the presidential candidates took place Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., focusing on national security and foreign policy issues.

Romney has recently cut into Obama’s lead on foreign affairs. According to the a Washington Post/ABC News poll, Obama has a slim 49 percent to 46 percent lead over Romney on international affairs, a 47 percent to 46 lead on terrorism and a 48 percent to 45 lead on who is better equipped to manage the armed forces.

— Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.

— Posted at 9:25 p.m. and last updated at 10:19 p.m.