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Presidential debate: After foreign-policy moment, it's back to Ohio (+video)

With the race dead even, President Obama and Mitt Romney close the books on presidential debates and head into a two-week sprint to Nov. 6 election, to be fought out on the economy.

By Staff writer / October 23, 2012

President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney meet family members after the third presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.

Michael Reynolds/AP

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Boca Raton, Fla.

The history books have closed on the presidential debates, and the two-week sprint is on to Election Day in a race that is a virtual dead heat.

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Monday night’s third and final debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney focused on foreign policy, but the candidates’ forays into domestic affairs reflected two truths about the 2012 race: that voters see the US economy as by far the most important election issue, and that, when push comes to shove, presidents face limited realistic options in carrying out foreign policy.

In the main, the two men’s differences centered more on style than on substance. As he did in last week’s debate, Mr. Obama came out aggressively against Mr. Romney, displaying once again the spark that was missing in the first debate. He sought to portray Romney as a neophyte on foreign affairs with pronouncements that are either outdated or inconsistent.

“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the cold war's been over for 20 years,” Obama said sarcastically, referring to Romney’s past assertion that Russia represents America’s “top geopolitical foe.”

Romney needed simply to clear the bar as credible on foreign policy if not equal to the president, who has lived the issues for four years. And he often avoided open conflict with the president by playing down differences as much as he sought to create contrasts. He concurred with Obama’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, go after terrorists with drones, and refrain from intervening militarily in Syria.

Inexplicably to many observers, Romney also opted not to press Obama on last month’s deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a security lapse that has dogged the administration. Romney got slapped down in the last debate over the issue, some say because he (and the moderator) mishandled what should have been a strong criticism of Obama's handling of the crisis.

But he suggested Obama had failed on Iran, calling it “the greatest threat of all ... four years closer to a nuclear weapon.”

Romney also sought to allay concerns that he might be spoiling for war, saying that the US mission in the Middle East – and more broadly, the planet – is to ensure peace. (Women voters in particular, a cohort where Romney has made recent gains in polls, are turned off by saber-rattling.) Then he pivoted to his strong suit as a candidate, the economy.   

“[F]or us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger,” said the former Massachusetts governor.

Obama went after Romney on the “strength” issue by criticizing him for calling for $2 trillion in additional military spending and a bigger Navy.

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