By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 10/23/12 03:51 AM EDT
President Obama and Mitt Romney took each other on in the final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign Monday night, fighting to prove their credentials as the right leader for America on the world stage.
Obama battled aggressively, repeatedly throwing darts at Romney and seeking to portray his opponent as "wrong and reckless" on foreign policy.
The president was the consensus winner among the snap polls take in the immediate aftermath of the debate, albeit by varying margins. A poll by CBS News was most favorable to the president, giving Obama a 53 percent to 23 percent advantage over Romney. Similar surveys by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling gave Obama a 53 percent to 42 percent advantage, with CNN turning in the narrowest margin for the president, a 8-point advantage for Obama over Romney.
In the PPP poll, the president led swing-state independents, 55 percent to 40, and led among both men and whites in the swing states — two categories he has struggled to attract thus far in the election. Yet the president only carried a 51 percent to 47 percent advantage on foreign policy, the debate's scheduled theme, suggesting he may have scored points on style and the frequent diversions into economic policy.
The debate, held in Boca Raton, Fla., was to focus on national security and foreign policy issues. It was the last chance for the candidates to make their pitch to millions of voters, who head to the polls two weeks from Tuesday.
The president, for whom foreign policy has seemed to be a strong suit throughout the campaign, especially since the killing of Osama bin Laden, asked voters to "judge who's going to be more effective and more credible" representing the country's interests abroad.
Obama came to the debate in Boca Raton, Fla. armed with stinging quips, arguing that "the 1980s called" wanting Romney's foreign policy back and blasting his challenger as seeming to treat military policy like a game of Battleship.
Romney, who has made significant gains in polls since their first debate last month, repeatedly criticized Obama as having failed in his dealings with upheaval in the Middle East or to weaken al Qaeda.
He also repeatedly pivoted the discussion back to a question of the economy — terrain where he clearly believed he held the advantage.
Right off the bat, the debate's moderator, Bob Schieffer asked a question about the violence in Libya, a story that has dominated the headlines since fighters attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month, killing an ambassador and three other Americans.
While Romney has frequently questioned the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the campaign trail, he mostly sidestepped that attack, instead arguing that the president had failed to present a broader vision for the future of the Middle East.
"We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism which is certainly — it's not on the run," Romney said.
But Obama argued that he had kept the American people safe as commander in chief and went on the attack, saying that Romney's criticism on foreign policy had been scattershot.
"I have to tell you that, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East," Obama said.
Romney punched back, saying that his strategy was "pretty straightforward."
His plan is "to go after the bad guys, do our best to interrupt them, kill them, to take them out of the picture. But my strategy is broader than that," Romney said.
The president quickly pivoted back onto attack, reminding the audience that it was Romney who called Russia the number one "geopolitical foe" to the United States.
"I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama said, adding that: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."
Romney shot back with a reference to Obama's "hot mic" moment with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone," Romney said.
But by the halfway point, the debate shifted almost fully to domestic issues, with both Obama and Romney repeatedly moving questions to the economy.
For the first time in the presidential debates, Obama looked to explicitly tie the Bush-era economy around Romney's neck.
"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," Obama said.
Romney replied by saying he was presenting "an agenda for the future."
"When it comes to our economy here at home, I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay," Romney said. "What we've seen over the last four years is something I don't want to see over the next four years."
During the debate, Obama sought to reaffirm U.S. ties to Israel, calling the nation a “true friend and “our greatest ally in the region.”
“As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon,” the president said, adding “A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security, and it is a threat to Israel’s national security.”
The candidates also battled on the issue of sequestration — a top issue in pivotal swing states like Colorado and Virginia with a large military presence that could be directly impact by the looming budget cuts.
Romney repeatedly suggested his budget was what was needed "to make sure that we are safe."
The president looked instead to pin the sequestration on Republicans in Congress, and he pledged the deal would not come to fruition.
"It is something Congress has proposed," Obama said. "It will not happen. The budget we are talking about is not reducing our military spending. It is maintaining it."
Obama also delivered a sharp rebuke of Romney's assertion that the Navy was weakening under the president's budget, with the Republican nominee pointing out that the number of ships in the naval fleet was the lowest in nearly a century.
"Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed," Obama quipped. "We had these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. So the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting slips. It's what are our capabilities."
As the discussion pivoted to Israel, the candidates continued to lob tough blows at one another. Romney accused the president of undermining the relationship with the key ally by not visiting Israel during his trip overseas. He also accused Obama of conducting "an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America."
"I think they looked at that and saw weakness," Romney continued. "Then when there were dissidents in the streets of Tehran ... holding signs saying, is America with us, the president was silent. I think they noticed that as well."
The president called Romney's accusations of an apology tour the "biggest whopper" of the campaign and hit back with a sharp critique of Romney's own trip to the Middle East, insinuating the Republican nominee had made the trip for publicity and fundraising.
"If we're going to talk about trips we've taken, when I was a candidate for office, the first trip I took was to visit our troops," Obama said. "And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attempt fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil, and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
Romney looked to capitalize on Chinese trade issues, saying the president had failed to be aggressive enough with the country. A Pew Poll released earlier this month showed American voters favored getting tougher on China relative to building a stronger relationship 49 percent to 42 percent, and the Republican nominee looked to make it a wedge issue.
"China can be our partner, but that doesn't mean they can just roll all over us and steal our jobs on an unfair basis," Romney said.
The president, as he had all night, pivoted back into an attack on his opponent.
"You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas," Obama said, adding that exports to the country had doubled during his time in office.
But Romney, showing a willingness to let Obama seem the aggressor — repeated his familiar refrain that "attacking me is not talking about an agenda for getting more trade."
As the debate concluded, each candidate was given time to give closing arguments in a presidential race that appears destined to go down to the wire.
Obama, going first, spoke of a "different vision for America" from the policies of the George W. Bush administration.
"If I have the privilege of being your president for another four years, I promise you I will always listen to your voices. I will fight for your families, and I will work every single day to make sure America continues to be the greatest nation on earth," Obama said.
Romney, in his closing remarks, said he was optimistic about the future of the country and touted past success working with Democrats.
"Washington is broken. I know what it takes to get this country back," Romney said. "And we'll work with good Democrats and Republicans to do that, this nation is the hope of the earth. We've been blessed by having a nation that's free and prosperous thanks to the contributions of the Greatest Generation. They've held a torch for the world to see: the torch of freedom and hope and opportunity. Now it's our turn to take that torch."