President Barack Obama persistently attacked Mitt Romney as naive on foreign affairs in their final debate Monday night while Romney tried to pull off a balancing act, projecting a more moderate outlook while asserting the nation's standing in the world had slipped under his rival.
"Nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago," Romney said.
The Republican nominee got pleasantries out of the way by immediately congratulating Obama for "taking out Osama bin Laden," while suggesting danger still lurked and portraying himself as less hawkish than past Republican candidates.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said of unrest in the Middle East, calling for a "comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is certainly not on the run."
An assertive and confident Obama tried to cast Romney as a shape shifter, saying his positions were "all over the map."
"Every time you've offered an opinion you've been wrong," Obama said.
Romney shot back, "Attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East, and take advantage of the opportunity there, and stem the tide of this violence."
But the tension masked the fact that on many levels the two men agree on foreign policy — underscoring the ways in which Obama has undercut the typical advantage Republicans have on national security matters.
The 90-minute debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton was the third and final of the 2012 campaign. With 14 days left — and voters already casting ballots in many states, including Florida — the race is a dead heat. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of likely voters released Sunday had Obama and Romney each with 47 percent of the vote.
Foreign policy and national security are down on the list of voters' concerns this election so the debate is unlikely to affect the trajectory. But it presented serious short- and long-term policy questions and was a crucial opportunity for the candidates to convey impressions of leadership.
Obama played on his four years of experience, reminding TV viewers he was "commander in chief" and landing more memorable lines, once mocking Romney by saying at one point that the U.S. military has "fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed."
Romney emphasized a more moderate side, using the word "peace" often while saying the world needs a strong America. It was part of a strategy aimed at voters who are weary of the long and costly wars, while not alienating his Republican base.
Often, the two men veered away from the debate script. Obama at one point went off on a long tangent about education. "We didn't have a lot of chance to talk about this in the last debate," he said, holding up his policies to work with governors to reform education policy and his proposal to hire more math and science teachers.
Moderator Bob Schieffer interjected, "Let me get back to foreign policy," but Romney ignored him and touted bipartisan education reforms in Massachusetts, where he was governor, that improved standards and performance.
"But that was 10 years before you took office," Obama said.
Schieffer eventually pulled it back to Iran and other hot spots that the White House will have to deal with in the coming years.
Often times the disagreements were more of tone than substance. Romney, for example, said he agreed with Obama's use of unmanned drones to launch attacks on suspected terrorists.
On Iran, Obama vowed, "As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," touting "crippling" economic sanctions.
"We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran," Romney said, invoking a "rising tide" of tumult overseas. He said he would tighten the sanctions and push for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for genocide.
"And, of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only — only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent," Romney said.
On Syria, the candidates agreed again, saying they would not support U.S. military involvement in an effort to topple President Bashar Assad.
Romney tried to hit Obama on Israel, noting he had not visited there as president but the two said they would have Israel's back if it were attacked.
On China, Obama called the country an adversary but also a partner, saying, "We are going to insist that China plays by the same rules as everybody else," borrowing rhetoric from Romney and boasting about plans to cut off cheap Chinese tires, a move Romney criticized.
Romney again tried to strike a more moderate balance, saying, "We can be a partner with China," but repeating his pledge to label the country a currency manipulator on the first day of his administration.
Schieffer reminded Romney about concerns — shared by Republicans — of a trade war. "It's pretty clear who doesn't want a trade war," Romney replied, noting that China sells far more goods in the U.S. than it buys from America.
The China exchange opened up a spirted dispute about the auto bailout, which Romney criticized. But he stressed his support of the car industry and tried to distance himself from the earlier criticism of the bailout.
"You keep on trying to airbrush history," Obama said.
Surprisingly, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, which killed four Americans, was not the debate's flash point.
Obama defended his administration's handling of the attack last month but turned it into a broader look at progress in Libya. "Despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them," Obama said.
Romney again tried to project a less hawkish view, stressing a broad plan to get the Muslim world to reject extremism.
"We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan," he said. "The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the — the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world."
Obama continued his aggressive posture from last week's debate in New York (after a listless opening round in Denver), mocking Romney for saying earlier in the campaign that Russia is the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States.
"The 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years," Obama said.
Though he entered the White House with little foreign policy experience, Obama played up his record repeatedly. "Here's one thing I've learned as commander in chief. . . . You've got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean," he said.
Obama used his closing statement, looking directly into the camera, to recount the troubles of the last four years and the progress the country has made.
"As commander in chief, I will maintain the strongest military in the world, keep faith with our troops and go after those who would do us harm. But after a decade of war, I think we all recognize we've got to do some nation building here at home," he said.
Romney said he was optimistic about the future and stressed a need for peace.
"I also want to make sure that we get this economy going," he added, saying Obama's policies could not do that. "America's going to come back, and for that to happen, we're going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. . . . We need strong leadership. I'd like to be that leader with your support."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.