A Debate About Foreign Policy in an Election About Economy

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.PlayDavid Goldman/AP Photo
WATCH Your Voice, Your Vote: The Final Debate

There are 15 days and one presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney and the general election.

While both candidates acknowledge the outcome of the election depends on no more than two dozen swing states, the debate tonight - the third of the campaign season - provides the final opportunity for the candidates to make their case to a national TV audience. Both Obama and Romney spent the weekend behind closed doors preparing.

Two previous debates – one which President Obama indisputably lost with an uninspired performance and one where he redeemed himself in the eyes of Democratic stalwarts – have equalized into the same dead heat the campaigns and political experts have long expected. An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday had the race tied at 47 percent support for each candidate. President Obama has an edge among women, according to a Wall Street Journal / NBC poll released Sunday. Mitt Romney has the edge among men.

Tune in to ABC News.com tonight at 8 p.m. ET for anchored coverage of the final presidential debate, held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

On paper, President Obama should hold an edge in a debate focused on foreign policy. He can boast of giving the order for American Special Forces to carry out the operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. He brought combat troops out of Iraq, ending the war that had played such a pivotal role in the two previous presidential elections. President Obama surged troops into Afghanistan, where as a candidate in 2008 he said more focus should have been in the first place during the years after 9/11. But he has set a timetable for withdrawing American troops from that country. While Romney has strongly criticized the timetable for being public, he has not made Afghanistan a main topic on the campaign trail and aides have said he would try to stick to a similar schedule for withdrawing American troops.

Read more about the candidates on Afghanistan.

Indeed, while 46 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy and 52 percent disapprove, according to the Wall Street Journal / NBC poll released Sunday, 49 percent approve of his foreign policy and fewer, 46 percent, disapprove.

But with a stubbornly difficult economy, this is not an election that anyone thought would hinge on foreign affairs. That is why Republicans chose a former one term governor who has made his main pitch his career as a businessman.

When Romney embarked on a mid-campaign overseas trip this summer, he was attacked by the British press over comments he made about security for the Olympics. A trip that was supposed to showcase Romney's own experience heading the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 instead included the London mayor leading tens of thousands in a chant against him.

Democrats today sought to recall those headlines in framing the debate on talk shows Sunday.

"People want to know that they have a strong, steady hand in the Oval Office. They don't want someone who's reckless and who's been consistently wrong on foreign policy issues as Gov. Romney has," said David Axelrod, a top Obama campaign adviser, on "Meet the Press." "We all remember his 'Dukes of Hazzard' tour of international destinations over the summer where he not only roiled countries that are not as friendly to us but our best ally, Britain. He was wrong on Libya. He was wrong on Iraq."

Democrats have also mocked Romney for referring to Russia in March as the top "geopolitical foe" of the United States. He later explained his position – that Russia often stands with some of the world's worst actors – in an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine.

But there have serious openings for Romney to make a foreign policy argument lately.

Republicans have said the administration was too slow to label the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi as an "act of terror."

President Obama muted that criticism during the town hall debate last week at Hofstra University when he pointed out he had used the phrase "acts of terror" during a speech the day after the attack.

Romney was unprepared for that semantic joust and lost the moment during the televised debate, but his larger point is accurate. It took the White House and the Obama administration two weeks to publicly describe the attack as terrorism even though it is now clear that U.S. officials knew it was a coordinated attack and not an organic uprising within days.

But the Libya attack has become increasingly political. Democrats have argued that Republicans on Capitol Hill investigating the Benghazi attack released classified information. Republicans have said the attack is a symptom of a larger lack of leadership by the White House.

"This is Exhibit A of a failed foreign policy," said Sen. Lindsay Graham on Fox News Sunday. "Al Qaeda is alive and well in Libya, Iraq, Syria and the wars are not receding. And what happened in Benghazi is a case study in failure at every phase, before, during, and after. And what they did after the attack, I think is just absolutely unacceptable. They tried to confuse, delay and deny. Create a narrative this was a spontaneous event when it was not, because the truth of the matter is -- the Benghazi, Libya conflict was a death trap long in the making. And this is failed presidential leadership at its worst."

On Syria, where the strongman President Bashar al Assad has waged war on rebel forces trying to overthrow him, Republicans have criticized the White House for not doing more to arm the opposition, but it is not clear what exactly Romney would do differently. Romney does not support U.S. involvement in enforcement and a no-fly zone to restrict the Syrian government.

Romney has been vocal in accusing the president of not being close enough to Israel or tough enough with Iran, which continues to pursue a nuclear program despite harsh international sanctions. News reports Sunday of the possibility of one-on-one talks between the U.S. and Iran could add a new element to the debate. The White House denied the report and Romney would not say Sunday if he would support bilateral talks.

Israel and Iran are sticky subjects in American politics. Both candidates, for instance, say that they will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Israel. And in Florida - the key swing state where tonight's debate will take place - the issue of support for Israel carries outsized importance due to a large Jewish population. Earlier this summer, Obama signed a bill renewing U.S. military support for Israel on the eve of Romney's trip there after his stop at the London Olympics.

Other subjects to watch for tonight: China and U.S. defense spending.

Romney has said he would work to declare China a currency manipulator if he is elected. President Obama's approach to China, one of the top holders of U.S. debt, has been more diplomatic. But his campaign has tried to argue that Romney's former company, Bain Capital, helped companies outsource jobs there. There is scant evidence that Romney was involved in those efforts.

While Romney wants to cut U.S. domestic spending, on defense he has suggested increased spending, particularly on the Navy, which he says has fallen into disrepair. He would tie defense spending to the Gross Domestic Product, which could create trillions in more spending.

Obama entered into an agreement with congressional Republicans to enact steep budget cuts, including to defense, if they could not reach a deficit reduction deal. That deal failed and when the election is over lawmakers will undoubtedly scramble to find a way to avert the spending cuts. But Democrats generally favor paring back on defense, especially as part of any deal to reduce the deficit.