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Romney gains on Obama on foreign-policy issues, in time for next debate (+video)

Americans have a much-improved view of Mitt Romney's foreign-policy positions, but Obama still has the edge on which candidate would better handle international matters, a new poll shows. Monday's presidential debate is on foreign policy and national security.

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Then there is Iran. The poll finds Americans about split on which candidate would better handle the issue of Iran’s nuclear program: 45 percent choose Obama, while 44 percent choose Romney.

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But the poll also finds a measurable uptick in a public preference for “taking a firm stand” with Iran; “avoiding military conflict with Iran” is now the priority for just over a third of respondents, down from 41 percent earlier in the year.

At the same time, however, Americans say they want less US involvement in the Middle East and in the political upheavals sweeping the region. Driving that sense of caution is a broad skepticism about the outcome of the revolutions termed the “Arab Awakening.”

After witnessing almost two years of sweeping change across the region, Americans largely and across party lines have a preference for stable regimes over democracy’s spread and the instability that can accompany it – and they are skeptical that the changes will result in significant improvement in the region.

“The public is much more dubious that the changes will lead to lasting improvements in people’s lives,” Kohut says.

Americans are also broadly unenthusiastic about any form of US intervention in Syria, tending rather to support the idea that the US should not try to solve the world’s problems. But one area where a partisan divide shows up is on Libya, and in particular on the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi.

In an additional line of questioning conducted Oct. 12-14, Pew found Republican respondents are much more likely than Democrats – or independents – to say they are closely following the public debate over the Libya attack, and from there to say that they disapprove of the administration’s handling of the event.

Voters continue to say that international issues will have an impact on how they vote, even though Americans seem less enthusiastic than at any time since the end of the cold war about US involvement in solving the world’s problems.

In a recent survey by the Better World Campaign, three-fourths of voters said a presidential candidate’s stance on foreign policy would be “important” in determining their vote.

“Three of the top responses given to explain the priority they give to foreign policy are that it’s important for the US to have allies, it’s important for the US to be seen as a leader on critical international issues, and that foreign policy is important to national security,” says Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, an organization that promotes US-United Nations cooperation on key development and global health issues.

Voters want to hear more about concerns such as how the candidates would end the war in Afghanistan, how they would address Iran’s nuclear program and relations with Israel, and how they would approach events in the Middle East, Mr. Yeo says.

Pew’s Kohut says voters do take foreign-policy issues seriously, but he suggests that those tuning into Monday’s debate will be watching not just for the candidates’ positions on foreign-policy issues, but also to see how they handle answering tough questions and which man comes across as the strongest leader.

“This is an election driven by domestic issues,” Kohut says. “Americans are not saying, ‘We aren’t going to play a role in the world,’ but they are saying, ‘We want a focus on home.’ ”

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