BOCA RATON, Fla. – President Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy in their final campaign 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.
Romney took the offensive, too. When Obama said America and its allies have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran to halt nuclear weapons development, the Republican challenger declared the United States should have done more. He declared repeatedly, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”
The president and his rival found agreement, as well, as they sat at close quarters 16 days before the end of an impossibly close election campaign. Each stressed unequivocal support for Israel when asked how he would respond if the Jewish state were attacked by Iran.
“If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” said Romney – moments after Obama vowed, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked.”
Both also said they oppose direct U.S. military involvement in the brutal attempt to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The event, staged at Lynn University, produced none of the finger-pointing and little of the interrupting that marked their debate last week, when Obama needed a comeback after a listless performance in their first meeting Oct. 3.
But there was no mistaking the urgency. The two men frequently sniped at one another even on issues where they agree, and they reprised their campaign-long disagreements over the economy, energy, education and other domestic issues despite ground rules that stipulated the debate cover international affairs.
Obama and Romney 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. The president is slated to speak in six states during a two-day trip that begins Wednesday and includes a night aboard Air Force One as it flies from Las Vegas to Tampa. Romney intends to visit two or three states a day.
Already 4 million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.
On the Middle East, Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year has 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.
Both candidates at times tonight tried to turn the subject to domestic policy, with Obama talking about education and Romney reeling off his five-point plan to improve the economy and criticizing the president for a jobless rate that until last month had continually exceeded 8 percent during his administration. The rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September.
During one of the debate’s more heated exchanges, Obama again accused Romney of wanting to let U.S. automakers go bankrupt rather than support a U.S. bailout.
“That’s the height of silliness,” Romney retorted.
“The people in Detroit don’t forget,” Obama said.
On various foreign policy specifics, the two sometimes professed agreement or differed only to a degree. Romney said he supported Obama’s decision to call for the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He added that he wished that the U.S. had worked “more aggressively” with allies in the region to pave the way for an easier transition.
Romney also said he wouldn’t send troops into Syria even as he said Obama wasn’t doing enough to deal with the mass killings of civilians there under Assad.
The president responded: “He doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syrian leadership and an effective transition so that we get Assad out.”
On Afghanistan, Romney said he would expect troops to pull out of the country in 2014, the same goal set by Obama.
Israel and Iran sparked some of the debate’s most contentious moments. Romney chastised Obama for what he called an “apology tour” in which Obama visited Arab countries and neglected Israel.
“They noticed that you skipped Israel,” Romney said.
Obama retorted that he had visited Israel as a candidate and that, unlike Romney this summer, didn’t hold a fundraiser in the country as a candidate. Obama said he went to the Holocaust museum “to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
Romney criticized Obama for not doing enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. “I think they saw weakness, where they expected to find American strength,” Romney said of Iranian leaders.
Obama and Romney both reiterated their positions on China, saying the country can’t violate trade rules. While Obama called the nation “a potential partner” and said he was focused on bringing trade complaints, Romney said he would label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
Romney reiterated his complaint that under Obama, the Navy is at its lowest number of ships since 1916.
Obama ridiculed the remark, saying the U.S. military needs have changed. “We have fewer horses and bayonets,” he said. “The nature of our military has changed. This is not a game of ‘Battleship’ that we are playing.”
Vice President Biden, campaigning in Canton, Ohio, emphasized differences between the two candidates on the war in Afghanistan. “We will leave Afghanistan in 2014, period. They say it depends,” he said.
Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, was in Colorado. “We are in the midst of deciding the kind of country we’re going to be, the kind of people we’re going to be, for a generation,” he said.
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 nights later.