Monday night’s debate doesn’t look like a mismatch anymore.
Instead, when President Obama meets Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Fla., he will face an opponent who has already made up tremendous ground on the subject by criticizing Obama as weak, waffling and distracted by his reelection goals.
Before the two men first debated on Oct. 3, Obama held a 15-point lead over Romney on the question of who is more capable of managing foreign affairs. After Obama’s listless performance, a Pew Research Center poll found that the gap had narrowed to a slender four points.
On Monday, the two candidates will share a stage for the last time. The race could not be closer: On Sunday, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the candidates tied, each with 47 percent of likely voters. Before the debates began, Obama led the same poll by three points.
In this debate, Obama could face the opposite of the situation many envisioned weeks before. Instead of lending him credibility, his commander-in-chief role could make him more vulnerable, opening Obama to questions about a range of unresolved crises.
Romney is likely to renew criticism of the Obama administration’s reaction to a Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans at a mission in Benghazi, Libya. And Obama also is likely to face questions about the civil war in Syria, a recent assassination in Lebanon and possible signals that Iran may be willing to bargain over the future of its nuclear program.
The White House on Saturday denied a New York Times report that said the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to hold one-on-one talks about that program. The report said Iran wanted to wait until after the election for talks to begin.
“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a written statement. The Reuters news service reported that Iran also had denied the report.
Libya’s political risks
Foreign policy questions played a significant role in the last presidential debate, held last Tuesday on Long Island. Romney was caught flat-footed with an overly broad statement that Obama had taken two weeks to label the attack in Benghazi an “act of terror.”
Romney was corrected by moderator Candy Crowley: Although Obama did not directly call the attack terrorism the next day, he did say that the United States will not retreat from “acts of terror.”
Since then, Romney has said little about Libya on the campaign trail. Advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking, said Romney has deliberately turned his focus away from Libya and toward the domestic economy and gas prices since the last debate.