Candidates duck defense, national security in second debate

While Tuesday night's town-hall-style debate was billed as a mix of domestic and foreign policy issues, Obama and Romney spent most of the hour-and-a-half exchange aggressively attacking each others' positions on the economy, healthcare, immigration and energy issues. 

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The final presidential debate, scheduled for next Monday, will focus exclusively on foreign policy and national security issues. 

Those tentative topics will include the Afghan war, so-called "red lines" by the U.S. and Israel on Iran's nuclear program and "America's role in the world," according to a release by the Commission of Presidential Debates issued last Friday. 

When topics such as Afghanistan or the increasing unrest in the Middle East did come up, both candidates retreated back to talking points while declining to engage in a substantive dialogue on those topics. 

Tuesday night's exchange at Hofstra University stood in stark contrast to last Thursday's vice presidential debate, in which Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Vice President Biden traded barbs on Iran, the White House's Afghan war plan and the growing civil war in Syria. 

During one of the limited national security exchanges at tonight's event, Obama reiterated arguments that under his watch the war in Iraq ended, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed and U.S. forces are beginning to come home from Afghanistan. 

When pressed on the White House's handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that ended with four Americans dead, including American Ambassador Chris Stevens, Obama again fell back to that default argument. 

“I said that we'd go after al Qaeda and bin Laden, we have. I said we'd transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security, that's what I'm doing,” Obama said after a question on the Libya attack.

Romney's line of attack on Thursday night was no different.  

Responding to the Libya question, Romney said the White House's handling of the situation “calls into question” Obama’s entire Middle East policy, echoing Ryan's comments from last Thursday's debate. 

“Look what's happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya," Romney said. “We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb." 

On Syria, the Republican candidate said the civil war there "not just a tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military," but a serious strategic threat to U.S. interests in the region. 

At the end of the Libya exchange, Obama pointedly told Romney he "would be happy to have a longer conversation on foreign policy." But that debate will just have to wait until next Monday.  

Jeremy Herb contributed to this story