* Romney expected to tread more cautiously on Libya
* Ex-businessman could be out of his comfort zone
* Polls show Obama's foreign policy edge shrinking
By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland
BOCA RATON, Fla., Oct 21 When President Barack
Obama and Mitt Romney face off on Monday in their third and
final debate, it will be the Republican challenger's last best
chance to recover from his botched "Libya moment" and exploit
vulnerabilities in his opponent's foreign policy record.
But Romney has an uphill struggle to make his case against
Obama, who will be buoyed by the advantages of incumbency as
well as polls showing him with an edge - though a shrinking one
- on the question of who is more trusted in global affairs.
This week's debate in Boca Raton, Florida, coming just 15
days before the election and devoted entirely to foreign policy,
could be the riskiest of the three nationally televised
showdowns for Romney, largely because of his inexperience and
recent blunders on the world stage.
Romney's missteps in criticizing Obama's handling of a
deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in
Benghazi - the focus of a vividly testy exchange in the previous
debate - have complicated his broader strategy of trying to cast
the president as a weak steward of American power abroad.
Deprived of one of his most potent lines of attack, expect
Romney to instead focus more of his criticism on Obama's
policies toward Iran, Israel, Syria, China, Afghanistan and
"Obama has a record, and Romney doesn't, so he can just
cherry-pick the arguments," said Jon Alterman, a former State
Department policy planner now at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington. "But that doesn't mean any
of it will stick."
Romney's aides hope that chipping away at Obama's
credibility on foreign policy and national security - areas the
White House once saw as largely immune from Republican attack -
can help put him over the top with undecided voters in the final
weeks of a White House race still too close to call.
The two men go into their final head-to-head encounter in a
dead heat, with an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing them
tied at 47 percent among likely voters.
WILL VOTERS CARE?
Obama's policies have faced setbacks recently, from
challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East to a string of
attacks on U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan by the Afghan
troops they are supposed to be training.
A report in The New York Times that the Obama administration
has agreed in principle with Iran to hold one-on-one talks over
Tehran's nuclear program could provide a fresh avenue for Romney
to cast Obama as too willing to accommodate. The White House
denied any such deal had been reached.
Republican Senator Rob Portman, Romney's sparring partner in
mock debates before Monday night, warned Obama against
sidelining U.S. allies in the diplomatic front against Iran.
"The other thing that gets interesting about the story, if
it's accurate, it sounds like the U.S. is taking a position that
we're likely to jettison our allies," he told NBC's "Meet the
Press." "The last thing we would want to do is abandon our
allies on this and make it a one-on-one negotiation," he said.
It remains to be seen how much traction any of this will
have with voters, whose main concerns by far are the economy and
The problem for Romney is that in focusing on Obama's
trouble spots, he also further exposes his own weaknesses.
As former governor of Massachusetts and an ex-businessman,
he is out of his comfort zone when not focused on domestic and
That was evident in last week's debate when he mistakenly
said Obama took weeks to acknowledge that the Benghazi assault -
which claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador and three other
Americans - was a terrorist attack.
Obama, who spoke of "acts of terror" in an appearance in the
White House Rose Garden the day after the attack, challenged
Romney to "check the transcript" and chastised him for trying to
score political points from a national tragedy.
A slew of pundits dubbed it Romney's "Libya moment," and
some of his own aides conceded privately that Obama got the
better of him.
On top of that, Obama managed to shift the focus away from
the thornier question of whether the administration had ignored
requests to beef up diplomatic security in Libya.
Romney went silent on Libya after Tuesday's encounter but
aides say the Republican, hunkered down in debate prep in
Florida this weekend, will be ready to deal with it on Monday
when it is all but certain to come up again.
What Romney hopes to do is press his point, drowned out in
the last debate, that the recent wave of anti-American violence
in Libya and other parts of the Middle East shows Obama's
foreign policy is "unraveling before our very eyes."
At the same time, he will want to avoid giving Obama another
opportunity to go on the offensive.
"I doubt the governor will end up parsing words. That's not
the most productive thing to do," said Eliot Cohen, a Romney
adviser who was a senior aide to former Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration.
Romney must also show voters he has what it takes to be a
capable commander-in-chief, and he will seek to counter any
attempt by Obama to "paint him as an insane warmonger," said
Cohen, now a foreign policy expert at the Johns Hopkins School
of International Studies in Washington.
Obama - who has touted the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a
signature foreign policy accomplishment - has signaled he could
use the debate to caution war-weary voters of the risk of a more
hawkish Romney presidency.
Obama himself often mentions that he ordered the U.S.
mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and the White House has
also touted a deadly drone campaign against al Qaeda leaders.
At a campaign rally in New Hampshire last week, Obama
suggested Romney was promoting the kind of foreign policy that
"takes us into wars without a plan to get us out."
A Pew Research Center survey, conducted after the first
debate but before the second, showed Obama ahead 47 percent to
43 percent on the question of who would make wiser foreign
policy decisions. That was much narrower than Obama's 15
percentage-point advantage in a poll early last month.
LOOKING FOR CONTRASTS
Romney will be under pressure to sharpen contrasts with
Obama when the two men sit side-by-side across the table from
moderator Bob Schieffer, known for a cantankerous demeanor with
guests on the Sunday morning CBS news show "Face the Nation."
The 90-minute debate will be divided into six segments:
America's role in the world; the war in Afghanistan; Israel and
Iran; the changing Middle East; terrorism; and China's rise.
Critics have accused Romney of relying on generalities and
platitudes - he has hearkened back to Ronald Reagan's "peace
through strength" doctrine - and he could be put on the spot if
he resists providing specifics.
Romney has promised to tighten the screws over Iran's
nuclear program. He has accused Obama of "leading from behind"
as Syria's civil war expands, and of a politically timed exit
from the unpopular Afghanistan war.
But in each case, critics say, he has not detailed