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Obama keeps Romney on his heels in last debate

By The Washington Post

President Obama seemed to use the authority of his office to put Republican challenger Mitt Romney on his heels in their final presidential debate Monday night, telling Romney he didn't understand foreign-policy problems as well as he does.

That idea underlay some of the night's harshest lines from Obama. He scoffed at Romney's assertion that Russia remained the country's chief geopolitical foe: "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."

And, when Romney asserted that the United States had fewer naval ships than decades ago, Obama retorted that his opponent didn't understand the modern navy. There were fewer ships, he said, but also fewer "horses and bayonets."

"We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on 'em," Obama said.  "The question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships."

Romney, for his part, returned to a criticism that Obama had been a weak and vacillating actor on the world stage. He said Obama had shown vulnerability to bad actors around the world, and done too little to support freedom movements in places like Iran.

"Nowhere in the world, the influence of America is greater than it was four years ago," Romney said.

But, at several points, Romney conceded that he would have done some of the same things that Obama did. He said he would also have instituted economic sanctions against Iran, but would have started them earlier. He supported Obama's urging that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leave office, but would have urged Mubarak to adapt earlier.

Romney said he also would have supported the military mission that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan. And he agreed with Obama's use of unmanned drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists overseas: "I support that entirely, and feel the president was right."

The debate veered, at times, away from its foreign-policy theme. A question about his plans to pay for a military expansion led Romney to talk about repealing President Obama's health care plan.

At another point, Romney repeated all five of the points in his plan to create jobs. Obama engaged, with a point about education that - also - had nothing obvious to do with foreign policy.

"Let me get back to foreign policy," Schieffer said.

Romney interrupted: He had another point to make about education in Massachusetts while he was governor. "I was proud that our fourth graders came out number one out of all 50 states in English," Romney said.

The debate began with an exchange about Libya, in which the Republican and Democrat seemed to trade places.

Romney seemed to attack Obama's policy as, in effect, too warlike - saying that Obama had focused too much on killing enemies, and too little on softer uses of American power.

"We can't kill our way out of this mess," in the Middle East, Romney said. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive (strategy) . . . to help the world of Islam reject this violent extremism." He suggested working on economic development, gender equality, and other issues to reduce violence in the Muslim world.

Obama, by contrast, defended a military solution he used in Libya last summer, organizing an international air campaign that helped defeat dictator Moammar Gaddafi. He attacked Romney for exactly what Romney had attacked him for, before: vagueness and vacillating in matters of foreign policy.

"I have to tell you that your strategy, previously, is one that has been all over the map," Obama said. "And is one that is not designed to keep Americans safe."

As the debate went on, however, the two returned to more familiar roles - and familiar arguments. Romney criticized Obama for what he called an "apology tour," saying Obama had shown weakness toward bad actors in the world. He said Obama has misunderstood America's role in world history, by saying the U.S. had "dictated" to foreign countries.

"America has not dictated to other nations," Romney said. "We have freed other nations from dictators."

Obama, for his part, criticized Romney for being "all over the map" on foreign policy, shifting his policies on a variety of subjects. In particular, he said Romney had previously said he would have asked Pakistan's permission before entering that country in search of Osama bin Laden. Obama, of course, ordered a mission that did no ask permission before killing bin Laden in a Pakistani hideout.

"When we do things like that, when we bring those who have harmed us to justice. That sends a message to the world," Obama said.

The confrontational tone of the first two debates also returned - this time, initiated first and more forcefully by Obama. At one point, he told Romney, "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong" on recent foreign-policy matters.

Romney retorted that Obama's criticisms weren't enough: "Attacking me is not an agenda."

Romney offered specifics for how he would tackle Iran's nuclear program, saying he would seek to have Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicted by a world court for inciting to genocide. Romney said he would also seek to have Iranian diplomats made pariahs around the world, isolating that country diplomatically in the way that South African diplomats were isolated under apartheid.

But often Romney sought to steer this foreign-policy debate toward subjects more central to his campaign: the economy, and his plans to streamline the U.S. government.

Later, however, the debate returned to its announced subject. Romney criticized Obama for allowing the number of ships in the U.S. Navy to shrink to the lowest number in decades. Obama retorted with a line he just might have rehearsed, telling Romney that he might not understand the military.

Romney, in the debate's first minutes, seemed to be less fiery than in past debates. At several points, he said he'd agreed with Obama on foreign-policy decisions, including Obama's urging that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leave power last year. He said that Obama should have done more to help Mubarak adapt to growing pressure for democracy. But, Romney said, "Once (Egypt) exploded, I felt the same as the president did."

The 90-minute debate began at 9 p.m. at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Going in, the two candidates seemed likely to renew their arguments over Obama's handling of Iran, China, the civil war in Syria, and the attack in Libya that killed four Americans last month.

For both, this could be their last best chance to break a close race open.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, out Monday, showed that Obama and Romney are effectively tied, with Obama leading by just one percentage point among likely voters, 49 percent to 48 percent.

The poll shows that Romney has gained significantly on the subjects of international affairs generally, and handling terrorism specifically. At the end of September, Obama held an 11-point lead over Romney as the candidate voters trusted on terrorism.

But now, 47 percent side with Obama on the issue, 46 percent with Romney.

The president's debate sparring partner, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., offered a preview of President Obama's likely line of attack during a brief talk with reporters in the spin room at Lynn University, saying "tonight's the night of reckoning" for Romney's shifting positions on U.S. foreign policy.

"You can't just come in here tonight and be a different Mitt Romney," Kerry said. "You can't Etch-a-Sketch your way through foreign policy. You have to have some consistency and precision and it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of experience, instead of none."

Kerry called Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., "the most inexperienced twosome in modern U.S. history to run for president and vice president. They have zero experience in foreign affairs, and there is a lack of clarity in almost anything they've said."

"Romney's campaign is trying to say that if he just comes out there and shows he's competent, he'll be okay. No, that's not the standard for commander-in-chief," Kerry said. "When I stood up there with George Bush I had to show I had better ideas and show I had specificity. . . Well, tonight you have to judge the specificity. What does he want to do in Iraq, what does he want to do in Iran?"

Kerry even took a shot at Romney's summer foreign trip to Britain, Israel and Poland, a jaunt punctuated by several perceived gaffes. Romney offended the organizers of the London Olympics when he questioned whether they were prepared to stage the games and he stated that the sluggish Palestinian economy is plagued more by "cultural" differences than by the strictures of the decades-old Israeli occupation.

"He takes a trip overseas and he trips all over himself from country to country," Kerry scoffed.

Kerry played the role of Romney during Obama's secret prep sessions for all three debates, chosen for his familiarity with Romney's record as Massachusetts governor and his own experience in the 2004 presidential debates when he was running against then-President George W. Bush.

Ahead of the debate, Obama's campaign released a new online ad touting the president's efforts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. "It's time to stop fighting over there, and start rebuilding here," the ad says. It attacks Romney for opposing the withdrawals.

 


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