The third and final presidential debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, which begins at 9 p.m. ET Monday night, will focus on foreign policy. For Mitt Romney, it's an opportunity to portray President Obama as a weak leader on the world stage whose administration botched the response to the Libya terror attack. For Mr. Obama, it's a chance to portray his rival as a naive foreign policy neophyte willing to put politics ahead of national security.
The debate comes amid signs that Romney has somewhat narrowed the president's foreign policy advantage. A Pew poll released last week found that Mr. Obama leads Romney 47 percent to 43 percent when it comes to who can make wiser decisions on foreign policy. That's down from a 15 point advantage for the president on the issue in the same poll in September.
The 90-minute debate, which will be moderated by CBS News' Bob Schieffer and take place at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., will be divided into six 15-minute segments. The planned topics: "America's role in the world," Afghanistan and Pakistan, "The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World," Israel and Iran, and "The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism," which has been allotted two segments.
Foreign policy has been something of an afterthought during a campaign when the candidates have largely focused on the economy, which voters say is their top concern. Michael O'Hanlon, director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said he is surprised that Romney has not more aggressively sought to link foreign policy to economic issues at home.
"I thought he could have made a contrast with Obama by going to Germany himself, talking to business and economic leaders," he said. "That would have been a way to project this image of focus and reinforce the overall notion that the campaign was all about the economy."
Romney didn't do so. Instead, his rhetoric about the president on foreign policy has repeatedly stressed presidential weakness: According to the GOP presidential nominee, the president "pursue[s] a strategy of leading from behind," has been engaged in an "apology tour" in office, has been "passive" in the Middle East and has been unwilling to "stand up to China." Romney botched his attack on the administration's seemingly-confused response to the Libya attack during the second presidential debate - giving Mr. Obama arguably his strongest moment in that debate last week - but you can expect him to be well prepared to try to land blows on the president over the issue Monday. (The circumstances of that attack are even now not yet entirely clear, though documents released over the weekend back up the administration's initial response.) In addition to the administration's response to the attack, Romney may follow the lead of House Republicans and raise questions over whether the White House turned down diplomatic requests for increased security as part of an effort to normalize relations with Libya.
But Romney has vulnerabilities. For one, the president can respond to his Libya criticism by playing the commander-in-chief card, as he did in the second debate: The notion that the Obama administration played politics or purposely misled the public over the attack, the stone-faced president said, is "offensive." That argument underlines the president's core foreign policy argument against his rival, which boils down to this: I'm out here making the hard choices - including ordering the mission that took out Osama bin Laden - while you take potshots from the sidelines.