Libya will play starring role in debate

The Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack in Libya has shaken the presidential race and raised the importance of Monday night’s clash over foreign policy.

The killing of a U.S. ambassador for the first time in 33 years has all but erased Obama's once considerable lead on foreign policy and shaken up the race with just two weeks to go.

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While the economy and jobs remain 2012’s signature issue, terrorism and foreign affairs have been at the center of the campaign in recent weeks.

Recent polling by Pew shows President Obama is vulnerable on the issue: His once comfortable 15-point lead over Republican Mitt Romney on foreign policy has evaporated by 11 points since the attack.

While the Middle East should dominate the debate, other topics — America's role in the world, the war in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program and the rise of China — will offer the two candidates plenty of other sparring opportunities.

Here’s a look at a few of the topics likely to dominate the discussion in the final Obama-Romney face-off, just two weeks before Election Day.


Libya

Obama has been on the defensive for weeks on Libya after the attack itself was followed by shifting explanations of what happened on Sept. 11 and revelations that the State Department turned down requests for more security.

The president fought back effectively during last week's debate, and was aided when moderator and CNN journalist Candy Crowley contradicted Romney’s assertion that Obama didn’t refer to the incident as an act of terror for 14 days.

Romney has shown no sign of giving up, however, and Republican lawmakers have set him up for what they hope will be a knock-out blow Monday by attacking Obama's handling of the situation from multiple angles.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been influential on the issue. On Friday, he issued a sharply worded letter to Obama calling on the administration to explain why security measures in Libya were downgraded after the attack.


Iran

Romney is expected to levy charges of fecklessness with regard to Obama's handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, an issue with new-found salience after the weekend's reports — denied by the White House and the Iranians — that the two countries could hold one-on-one talks after the election.

Republicans argue the administration waited too long to put in place the most crippling sanctions and has dangerously distanced itself from U.S. ally Israel, which is pondering a pre-emptive strike.

The administration however says its stance — military action as a last resort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — is exactly the same as Romney's. The Obama campaign also defended its decision to go through the United Nations to impose the toughest multilateral sanctions that veto-yielding China and Russia would agree to.

“Let's all calm down a little bit here,” Vice-President Biden said during his debate on Oct. 11 with Romney running mate Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “Iran is more isolated today than when we took office. It was on the ascendancy when we took office. It is totally isolated.”


China

America's unbalanced trade relationship with China is another issue where Romney is expected to press the argument that Obama has failed to sufficiently assert U.S. power.

A recent poll by Pew shows that Romney has a lead on the issue, with 49 percent of voters trusting him more to get tough on China versus 40 percent for Obama, who has had to deal with America's second-largest trading partner on a variety of fronts over the past four years beyond the usual presidential-year campaign rhetoric.

Romney has pressed home his advantage by vowing to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a move that would require negotiations with China and could set off a push in Congress to slap tariffs on Chinese goods.

Obama argues the Chinese renminbi has appreciated by 11 percent under his presidency, after adjusting for inflation, and that Romney's past support for companies that outsourced jobs to China when he headed Bain Capital casts doubt on his promises.


Russia

Before the attack in Libya, Republicans had sought to cast Obama's unfulfilled effort to “reset” relations with Russia as Exhibit A of the president's failure to live up to the lofty rhetoric of the 2008 campaign.

Since Obama took office, Russia has thrown out the U.S. Agency for International Development and vetoed U.N. sanctions on Syria three times even as it continues to arm the regime of Bashar Assad.

Republicans have also accused Obama of being ready to abandon U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, as evidenced by his hot-mic comment to then-President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year about having more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election.

The White House says Romney's approach has been all bluster — he famously called Russia America's “Number 1 geopolitical foe” — that's lacking any specifics in how he proposes to deal with what is arguably the world's only other military superpower.


War

The two candidates are expected to have a heated discussion on war — even though, here again, the differences have more to do with rhetoric than specific policy differences.

Romney has attacked Obama for failing to strike a deal with Iraq to be able to keep U.S. troops in the country past last year and for telegraphing a specific end date — 2014 — for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan; he has not put forth an alternative calendar for Afghanistan, however.

Obama for his part argues that he is “responsibly” ending two wars started by his predecessor. A new campaign ad out Monday drives that point home, as polls show Americans are weary after more than a decade of war.

That conversation will likely touch on the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Romney has attacked Obama's policy of supporting the opposition to Assad with non-lethal aid as insufficient but has ruled out putting U.S. boots on the ground. Former U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan unexpectedly gave Obama a boost over the weekend when he lambasted Ryan's criticism during the vice presidential debate that his failed peace mission “bought Bashar Assad time.”

“It is a piece of unmitigated nonsense,” Annan told CNN, “in effect saying 'Don’t even try to resolve it peacefully, don’t give the Syrians hope. Give weapons and let’s kill each other.’ ”