* Debates have been unusually important in 2012 campaign
* Libya, Iran top issues in Boca Raton
* The two candidates locked in dead heat in polls
By Steve Holland and Sam Youngman
BOCA RATON, Fla., Oct 22 President Barack Obama
and Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in front of the
cameras for a third and final time on Monday near the end of a
presidential campaign season marked by a high number of
With 15 days to go until Americans vote on Nov. 6, the two
candidates turn to foreign policy for their last encounter at
Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. The 90-minute event
starts at 9 p.m. (0100 GMT on Tuesday) and is moderated by Bob
Schieffer of CBS.
The stakes are high as the pair run neck and neck in the
polls. Presidential debates have not always been consequential,
but this year they have had an impact.
Romney was reeling from a series of stumbles when he entered
the first debate in Denver on Oct. 3, and his strong performance
changed the course of the race, vaulting him back into an even
position in the polls with Obama.
Democrats fretted openly about their candidate's timidity at
Then, Obama was ruled the narrow winner of the second
encounter on Oct. 16 when he got the better of Romney in a testy
exchange over Libya. His campaign halted the slide but it was
not enough to edge ahead in the polls. An NBC News/Wall Street
Journal survey on Sunday put the two tied at 47 percent among
Several times, debates marked turning points in the
Republican primary race. T exas Governor Rick Perry's White House
run effectively ended when he failed to remember one of three
federal agencies he would scrap, in his infamous "Oops" moment
in a debate.
Newt Gingrich presented Romney a serious challenge at points
during the primaries, partly on the back of strong debate
The former House of Representatives speaker won fans among
Republicans by attacking moderator John King of CNN for asking
him about an old extramarital affair at the start of a debate in
January in South Carolina. Gingrich won the state's primary days
Monday's debate is the last major chance for Romney and
Obama to be seen by millions of voters before Election Day. More
than 60 million viewers watched each of their previous two
If recent history is any guide, it is anybody's guess as to
how the third face-to-face session will play out.
Despite a reputation for being wooden, Romney has shown an
ability to rise to the occasion and perform well on stage.
The incumbent Democrat seems to have the upper hand on
foreign policy since he has been in charge of U.S. national
security for nearly four years. He gets credit for the mission
that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and for pulling
troops from Iraq.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy
Center at Southern Illinois University, said Obama has two
goals: show that "he's got nothing to apologize for in the way
he has conducted foreign policy" and question the inexperienced
Romney on foreign affairs.
China could be an issue for Obama to raise, said Yepsen, as
Romney has vowed to crack down on Chinese trade policies if
"He's got to really pin Romney down on what he means by some
of the things he's saying. 'What do you mean when you say you
are going to get tough on China? How do you go about doing
that?'" he said.
A former governor of Massachusetts whose trip abroad in July
to London, Jerusalem and Poland was marked by missteps, Romney
has to assure voters he is a credible alternative to the
president on the world stage.
Romney accuses Obama of presiding over a weakening in U.S.
"Many voters are ready to fire Obama if they see Romney as
an acceptable alternative," said Yepsen. "Foreign policy has not
been a big driver of this campaign but I think Romney could add
some icing to his cake if people say, 'Hey, this guy is on top
of world affairs.'"
The two men at their second debate last week clashed
bitterly over Libya, a preview of what is to come on Monday.
They argued over Obama's handling of an attack on the U.S.
Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens
and three other Americans were killed.
The Obama administration first labeled the incident a
spontaneous reaction to a video made in the United States that
lampooned the Prophet Mohammad. Later it said it was a terrorist
assault on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
This shifting account, and the fact that Obama went on a
political fundraising trip the day after the attack, has given
Romney ammunition to use at Monday's debate.
Critics have accused Romney of relying on generalities and
platitudes - he has harkened 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 and accused Obama of "leading from behind" as
Syria's civil war expands and setting up a politically timed
exit from the unpopular Afghanistan war.
The Republican is likely to bring up a report that the
United States and Iran agreed in principle to hold bilateral
negotiations to halt what Washington and its allies say is a
plan by the Islamic Republic to develop nuclear weapons.
The 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.