President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrangled Monday night over America’s place in the world, particularly the Middle East, with Obama mocking Romney's foreign policy ideas and Romney accusing the president of weakening the country's influence abroad.
The debate did not match the intensity or aggression of their Oct. 16 meeting, but the arguments were no less sharp. Their exchanges this time were a bit more nuanced, with no stunning or decisive blows.
Obama's weapon of choice was sarcasm, which he used to paint Romney as out of touch and anachronistic.
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The most biting remark came in response to Romney's argument for increased military spending, in which he pointed out that the Navy was "smaller now than at any time since 1917" and that the Air Force "is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947."
Obama responded: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."
Obama used a similar approach when Romney condemned the president's handling of the Arab Spring uprisings.
"What's been happening over the last couple of years is, as we've watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see al-Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in. And they're throughout many nations in the Middle East," Romney said.
Obama's rejoinder: "Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia... they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years.
"But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s."
Romney suggested that Obama had taken his Russia comment, in a March interview on CNN, out of context. He said that while Russia remained a "geopolitical foe," Iran was America's "greatest national security threat." Then he accused the president of handling Russian President Vladimir Putin with kid gloves.
Monday's debate marked a downshift in tone from the candidates' last match-up, a town-hall-style meeting in which Romney and Obama walked the stage, often meeting face-to-face and interrupting each other.
The most notable change came from Romney, who slipped into a more passive, relatively agreeable posture. He even agreed with Obama on several things, including the timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the refusal to use military strikes on Syria.
When Romney did pounce, it was often to reiterate a central theme of his campaign: that Obama has not asserted America's goals strongly enough abroad, allowing the country's enemies and rivals, from Iran to China, to take advantage.
"I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength," Romney said. "And I say that because from the very beginning, the president in his campaign four years ago, said he would meet with all the world's worst actors in his first year, he'd sit down with (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez and (late North Korean dictator) Kim Jong-Il, with (former Cuban leader Fidel) Castro and President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad of Iran. And I think they looked and thought, well, that's an unusual honor to receive from the President of the United States."
Romney continued: "And then the president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness."
Obama accused Romney of making all that up.
"Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that's been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who's looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true."
Obama went on to defend his record of economic sanctions against Iran, which he described as "the toughest, most crippling sanctions ever."
Then he turned to Romney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, and charged him with "investing in a Chinese state oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector."
Romney agreed that economic sanctions on Iran were working but argued that those now in place don't go far enough.
"It's absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions. I would have put them in place earlier," he said. "I would tighten those sanctions."
The debate was held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., with Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” moderating. Because Romney and Obama remained seated at a desk with Schieffer, there was less opportunity for dramatic confrontations.
Romney used such confrontations to his advantage in the first debate, on Oct. 3, when Obama seemed passive and disengaged. That debate that marked a turning point in the campaign. Since then, Obama's lead in the polls has slipped, and the race has narrowed to a virtual tie.
In the second debate, the contentious Oct. 16 town-hall meeting, Obama was much more aggressive, but Romney mostly kept pace.
Monday's debate was their last appearance on stage together during the campaign and a final chance to score lasting points in front of tens of millions of viewers.
The pressure was heaviest on Obama, not only to make up for the gains he'd lost but also to take full advantage of a subject — foreign policy — that naturally favors a sitting president.
Led by Schieffer's pointed questions, Romney and Obama sparred on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, how many troops to leave in Iraq, how to handle the civil war in Syria, how much to spend on the military and the country's tumultuous negotiations with Iran, along with the implications on Israel.
The more subdued Romney preferred to make broad-stroke swipes at the president rather than disagree with finer policy points.
"Unfortunately, in nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago," Romney said at one point.
Obama countered that criticism with examples of his efforts to strike the right balance of diplomacy and force.
"The central question at this point is going to be: who is going to be credible to all parties involved?" Obama said. "And they can look at my track record, whether it's Iran sanctions, whether it's dealing with counter-terrorism, whether it's supporting democracy, whether it's supporting women's rights, whether it's supporting religious minorities. And they can say that the President of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history."
The debate was supposed to focus exclusively on foreign affairs, but neither Romney nor Obama could resist wading back into domestic issues to reprise attacks first leveled in their first two meetings. The digressions included disagreements about education policy, the economy, job growth and energy production.
Schieffer repeatedly had to pull them back to the questions he'd asked. In the debate's final minutes, Romney proclaimed his love for teachers, to which Schieffer finally said, "I think we all love teachers," and made them move on to their closing statements.