President Barack Obama portrayed rival Gov. Mitt Romney as "all over the map" and inexperienced on key national security issues in the third and final debate of the presidential election Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla. Each candidate attempted to paint the other as an untrustworthy commander in chief, but Romney's performance was less aggressive than Obama's, and the governor was often on defense in the 90-minute exchange."I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy—but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama said, referencing Romney's initial support for the Iraq war.
The president in general was harshly critical of Romney, and landed a few well-placed zingers. "The Cold War's been over for 20 years," he said in response to Romney's comment from several months ago that Russia is America's primary geopolitical foe.
He later said, "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets," in response to Romney's criticism that America has fewer Navy ships than in the past. "We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines," the president added, a touch of mockery entering his voice.
Romney frequently pivoted to domestic issues and the economy, including the high number of Americans in poverty, his education record in Massachusetts, and his plans for reducing the deficit and creating jobs.
On foreign policy, Romney did not criticize how Obama handled the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, a topic he brought up in last week's town hall-style debate. Instead, Romney said the Middle East is in "tumult" and "chaos," and suggested Obama's strategy of killing Al Qaeda leaders in drone strikes is not enough to bring stability to the region.
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the ... world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism, which certainly [is] not on the run."
Romney also slammed Obama for what he called his "apology tour" in the Middle East, which he said projected weakness abroad. "The president began what I've called an apology tour of going to nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness," Romney said. Obama called this a "whopper" and criticized Romney for fundraising on his trip to Israel. "When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors," Obama said. "I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
Despite the crossfire, the candidates seemed to agree on many key foreign-policy issues, including the use of drone strikes to kill people believed to be terrorists, harsh sanctions on Iran (though Romney said the sanctions should be even stricter), and a strategy of avoiding military involvement in Syria.
After Romney seemed to avoid specifics on how he would handle Syria's civil war differently from Obama, the president retorted: "What you've just heard Gov. Romney say is that he doesn't have different ideas."
Obama and Romney are statistically tied among voters in the most recent polls, with Romney able to catch up with the president on the strength of his performance in the first debate in Denver. On foreign policy in particular, Obama's lead over Romney, in the double digits only a few months ago, has shrunk to just four points, according to a recent Pew poll.
Americans considered President Obama the loser in the first debate in Denver by historic margins, and Romney's poll numbers soared after his strong performance there. When the candidates met for a rematch at Hofstra University on Long Island last week, a much more assertive Obama showed up, and snap polls showed he was considered a narrow winner of the night.
It remains to be seen if this debate will provide a "bounce" for either candidate in the last few weeks of the campaign. Voters overwhelmingly say the economy and jobs are the most important issues for them in this election.