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BOCA RATON, Fla. – Republican Mitt Romney said Monday night that he praises President Obama for ordering the raid that killed al- Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, but added that the United States “can’t kill our way out of this mess” of religious extremism.
Romney opened Monday’s third and final presidential debate by criticizing Obama’s policies toward Islamic extremism. He said that Obama missed an opportunity during the Arab Spring and that Obama has not done enough to block Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
Obama said Romney has not been in a position to execute foreign policy, but he added that Romney’s positions to this point have “been all over the map.”
Romney said his strategy “is pretty straight forward: go after the bad guys.”
Obama sharply challenged 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.
Obama met Romney for a foreign policy discussion that may represent the last chance for a game-changing event before the Nov. 6 election.
The matchup capped a three-debate series that shook up the race. Romney’s performance in the first debate Oct. 3, devoted to domestic policy, gave him a boost in national and state polls.
Obama rebounded in the second, a town-hall forum Oct. 16, though viewers polled afterward gave him a less-resounding win than Romney claimed in the first meeting.
Monday’s face-off was showcasing the two rivals’ different paths toward what are often similar goals on foreign policy. Obama emphasizes working with allies to put pressure on adversaries; his Republican rival stresses U.S. military might and says he would be tougher on Russia, China, Iran and terrorists.
The distinctions may be “detail or nuance, but I will tell you as a former practitioner, those actually make a huge deal of difference,” said Eliot Cohen, a Defense Department and State Department adviser under former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush who now counsels the Romney campaign.
From the start of Obama’s re-election campaign, his aides have said national security would be the toughest flank for opponents to penetrate.
Instead, the president who oversaw the killing of bin Laden, persuaded NATO to help bring down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and ended the war in Iraq has been put on the defensive by the Sept. 11 attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Romney has criticized the administration over the attack, and recent surveys show he has narrowed Obama’s lead with voters on the foreign policy front.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday showed that 49 percent of likely voters chose Obama when asked whom they trust most to handle international affairs, while 46 percent picked Romney. Obama led on the question by 7 percentage points earlier this month.
Overall in the ABC/Post poll, 49 percent backed Obama for president and 48 percent sided with Romney. The margin of error in the Oct. 18-21 survey of 1,376 likely voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In a CBS News national poll released Monday night, Obama had a two-point lead over Romney among likely voters – 48 percent to 46 percent. Last month, the survey gave the president a three-point edge. The error margin for the Oct. 17-20 poll of 790 likely voters is plus or minus four points.
The race also is tightening in some the most closely competitive states, according to surveys.
In Florida, the largest of the battleground states, the candidates were virtually even in an Oct. 17-18 CNN/ORC International poll of likely voters, with 49 percent backing Romney and 48 percent supporting Obama.
A Quinnipiac University/CBS News poll released Monday of likely Ohio voters showed Obama leading Romney by 5 percentage points, 50 percent to 45 percent. That’s half the margin Obama had in the poll in late September.
The debate at Lynn University was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. He planned to spend the most time on discussion of changes in the Middle East and the “new face” of terrorism. He’ll also ask about America’s role in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and the rise of China, according to a topic list released Oct. 12.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has no foreign policy experience. His election-year trip overseas this summer was marred by his insult to the U.K. over its preparations for the Olympics, the suggestion that he would give Israel carte blanche to attack Iran, and remarks that Palestinians saw as insensitive.
Romney has sought to stake out differences with Obama on issues from the Middle East to China to Russia, and on Pentagon spending.
Since the attack in Libya, he has charged that the administration didn’t do enough to protect the consulate there and that the administration took too long to dispel the idea that the violence was caused by a spontaneous demonstration instead of terrorists.
The deaths at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi gave Republicans an opening to question whether Obama’s support for Arab Spring rebellions has worked out better for the United States or for Islamic radicals; whether the killing of bin Laden has caused the president to become complacent about other Islamist threats, and whether Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan will risk it again becoming a terrorist haven.
Obama’s record shows he approaches crises case by case. He backed U.S. military intervention to support the popular uprising in Libya yet hasn’t done the same in Syria, and he distanced the United States from allies in Egypt and Yemen during anti-government protests while standing behind Arab monarchs.
“Barack Obama, wartime president though he is, continues to see the world still in nuanced gray – the color of engagement and diplomacy,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast analyst who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Mitt Romney, should he be elected, will start off seeing the world more in black and white – the color of muscular rhetoric, American exceptionalism and unapologetic nationalism,” said Miller, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
The two candidates spent Monday on final preparations and walk-throughs at the debate site. Over the weekend, Obama sequestered himself at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, while Romney held his rehearsals at an oceanside hotel in Palm Beach County.
Outside the debate hall Monday, college-aged men and women filled a campus pool at the McCusker Sports Complex, batting beach balls and lounging on red, white and blue floats. Adding to the spring-break atmosphere at the Florida college: Free beer was being handed out near the media center.