BOCA RATON, Fla. (WWJ/AP) – President Barack Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy in their final campaign debate Monday night, saying, “every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong.” The Republican coolly responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda” for dealing with a dangerous world.
With the two men seated at a semi-circular table, the early moments of the debate produced none of the finger-pointing and little of the interrupting that marked their debate last week.
But there was little or no agreement, either, on Libya, Syria, Russia and other national security issues in a 90-minute encounter at Lynn University.
Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year have resulted in a “rising tide of chaos.” He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with change sweeping the Middle East, and he added ominously that an al-Qaida-like group has taken over northern Mali.
Anticipating one of Obama’s most frequent campaign assertions, Romney said of the man seated nearby, “I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida. But we can’t kill our way out of this. … We must have a comprehensive strategy.”
Obama said he had ended the war in Iraq, was on a path to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and has vowed to bring justice to the attackers of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month – an assault that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
He also jabbed at Romney’s having said during the campaign that Russia is the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe.
“Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy you seem to want the policies of the 1980s, just like you want to import the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies in the 1920s,” Obama said.
The president and his challenger agreed long ago to devote one of their three debates to foreign policy, even though opinion polls show voters care most about economic concerns — and it didn’t take long to bring up the auto industry bailout.
“The idea that’s been suggested that I would liquidate the industry, of course not, of course not,” said Romney. “That’s the height of silliness. I have never said I would liquidate the industry.”
“Governor, the people of Detroit don’t forget,” Obama responded. “Gov. Romney, you keep on trying to airbrush history here. You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace, that wasn’t true. They would have gone through a liquidation.”
“You’re wrong Mr. President,” said Romney. “People can look it up.”
“I am not wrong,” Obama said. “People will look it up.”
The two men are locked in a close race in national opinion polls. The final debate behind them, both men intend to embark on a final two-week whirlwind of campaigning.
Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.
Barring a last-minute change in strategy by one campaign or the other, Obama appears on course to win states and the District of Columbia that account for 237 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The same is true for Romney in states with 191 electoral votes.
The battlegrounds account for the remaining 110 electoral votes: Florida (29), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Ohio (18) and Wisconsin (10).
Whatever the outcome of the final face-to-face confrontation, the debates have left an imprint on the race. Romney was widely judged the winner of the first debate over a listless president on Oct. 3, and he has risen in polls in the days since. Obama was much more energetic in the second.
Monday night marked the third time in less than a week that the president and his challenger shared a stage, following the feisty 90-minute town-hall-style meeting last Tuesday on Long Island and a white-tie charity dinner two night later where gracious compliments flowed and barbs dipped in humor flew.
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