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How the Obama-Romney foreign-policy debate could determine the election

With turmoil increasing in world hot spots, foreign policy and national security have become major presidential campaign issues. From China to Israel, Iran to Syria, stateless terrorists to struggling alliances, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have plenty to debate Monday night.

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But Republicans in Congress (and Romney) have jumped all over the Obama administration’s subsequent remarks on the episode, particularly statements regarding “terrorism” and “terrorists.”

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It’s all of a piece, Romney charges. “Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column.

Still, Obama can rightly claim to have decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden. And it’s unlikely that Romney as president – despite his buddy-buddy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could do any more than Obama has done to tighten the economic screws on Iran.

Meanwhile, the debate over who’s toughest on Iran took a new twist when the New York Times (citing “administration officials”) reported Saturday that the United States and Iran “have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program … setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”

Was this some sort of “October surprise?” Not so, insisted administration officials, who denied the report.

But the Romney camp was quick to label it “another example of a national security leak from the White House,” as Sen. Rob Portman, who played Obama in Romney's debate preparations, did Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Obama spokesmen were just as quick to defend administration policy on Iran.

"For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition. And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, also speaking on NBC. "They're feeling the heat. And that's what the sanctions were meant to do."

Both Obama and Romney are preparing to the hilt for Monday night’s encounter. The last thing either wants to do is have the post-debate discussion focus on a “binders” kind of gaffe – the kind that helped deny Gerald Ford reelection in 1976 when he declared in a debate with Jimmy Carter, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

"I think the stakes are pretty high for both candidates," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. "If we are lucky, we, the voters, we will come out of it at the end thinking, 'I actually know something of Mitt Romney's philosophy as he looks at the world and America's place in it. I understand better what President Obama wants to do and how he sees things.' "

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