5 things to watch in the final presidential debate

Published Oct. 22, 2012

The final two weeks of the 2012 campaign kick off tonight in Boca Raton with the last presidential debate — focused on foreign policy.

Foreign affairs have largely been an afterthought in this marathon campaign overwhelmingly dominated by the economy, and the debate offers both candidates what is likely their last big moment to persuade voters they offer greater leadership.

In some respects, President Barack Obama should have the advantage. He is the incumbent who, as promised, ended the war in Iraq, ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and according to most polls, enjoys more trust among voters on foreign policy than Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has stumbled several times on foreign policy, but without a record to defend, he has more flexibility to pick and choose what issues to focus on.

More than 60 million viewers may tune in at 9 p.m. for a debate that truly could decide the presidency. Not surprisingly, the location is Florida.

Here are five things to watch:

1 Domestic policy. Yes, it's a debate focused on foreign policy, and moderator Bob Schieffer intends to divide the 90 minutes into six segments: America's role in the world, Afghanistan, Israel and Iran, the changing Middle East, terrorism and China's rise.

But the economy remains the overriding issue in this race, and it's hard to imagine Obama and Romney failing to return to domestic policy over and over again. On this, both nominees agree: America's position and strength in the world starts with its strength at home.

2 Leadership. Voters are unlikely to be moved significantly by slight variations in how Romney or Obama will handle Pakistan or North Korea, but they can be moved by perceptions of leadership. Romney tightened the race into a dead heat after two debates where he reassured soft supporters and undecided voters that he is a palatable alternative to President Obama, and his challenge is to do that again when the topics are mainly outside his comfort zone.

Excessive hostility won't play as well in the context of foreign policy discussions, so look for less heat in this debate. The format, with the candidates seated side by side at a table, will also likely soften their demeanor.

3 Libya. The Obama administration's shifting explanations for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, gave Romney a rare opening to challenge the president's foreign policy record. Yet, Romney bungled the issue twice, much to the befuddlement of even some of his strongest supporters.

First, his campaign issued a hasty statement attacking the Obama administration, even before people knew the scope of what happened. Then in last week's debate, instead of pinning down Obama about the administration's handling of security at the consulate and its shifting explanations about what occurred, he clumsily challenged Obama's semantics and whether the president had used the term "act of terror" soon enough.

Tonight, Romney has an opportunity to clean up the issue by aggressively challenging the administration's handling of Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi — without looking excessively shrill and political.

4 George W. Bush. Romney rarely mentions the former president, but Bush's shadow will hang over this foreign policy debate. Much of Romney's foreign policy team includes some of the most hawkish neo-conservatives from the Bush administration, while Obama's foreign policy has been defined in large part by winding down wars that started under Bush.

Romney has fiercely criticized the Obama administration for not being forceful enough on the world stage and too often "leading from behind." Obama has put more emphasis on coalitions when exerting power across the globe.

A New York Times report that the Obama administration may negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program after the election may give Romney another opening to cast the president as too accommodating.

This is a war-weary country, however, and Obama has already implied that a Romney administration would mean returning to the policies of President Bush, both on the domestic front and internationally.

"If Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so," the president told 60 Minutes last month when asked about Romney's charges that Obama was not aggressive enough with Iran.

Nor can Obama entirely distance himself from the Bush policies he has long criticized. He has yet to fulfill his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for instance.

5 Second-term agenda. Obama has repeatedly criticized Romney for failing to explain how his tax and budget policies add up, and what expenses and tax deductions they would support.

Nor has Romney offered many specifics for where he actually differs with Obama on the stickiest foreign policy issues, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Israel.

But Obama likewise has yet to offer a real explanation for what his second term would look like, beyond broad platitudes.

The president's campaign has concentrated for months on making Romney an unacceptable alternative to the president, but with two weeks to go he and Romney are essentially tied. Tonight will be his last, best opportunity to explain his plans for the next four years.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at