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WITH JUST FOURTEEN days to go until the US presidential election, tonight will mark the final showdown between the two candidates in what has become an increasingly tight contest.

From 2am Irish time, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off on the issue of foreign policy before a small audience at Lynn University in Boca Raton in Florida.

Polls show the two in a statistical dead heat, with Romney’s decisive victory in the first debate helping to tighten the gap between the two candidates. Obama fared better in the second one – but it’s all to play for tonight.

If you’re still awake at this stage then let’s face it, you’re not going to bed any time soon. Stay with us. Hit us up with any good comments or observations: tweet me @christinebohan or @thejournal_ie or leave your comment below – or just yell at your tv/computer screen. Whichever’s good for you.

Just under 20 minutes to go until kick off. Anderson Cooper is doing his best concerned face over on CNN, Mitt Romney’s body man has started tweeting behind the scenes shots of the Romney family, and Michelle Obama has sent the now-customary email to Obama supporters asking for donations.

Here’s what’s going to happen tonight. Bob Schieffer, the talismanic CBS news presenter, is the moderator of tonight’s debate and has chosen a number of broad topics.  These are:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Afghanistan
  • Israel and Afghanistan
  • The Middle East and the changing face of terrorism
  • The rise of China

The debate will last for 90 minutes. Expect Iran and Libya to feature heavily with the candidates previously trading blows over them. Also, if Barack Obama doesn’t mention the words Osama bin Laden at least once then – well, who are we kidding. Of course he will.

One of the reasons why there’s so much more pressure on the candidates in tonight’s debate is the shift in the polls. Before the first debate two weeks ago, Barack Obama had a fairly comfortable lead in many of the opinion polls. However his lacklustre performance at the first debate, coupled with a surge in support for Mitt Romney means there’s very little to separate the two at this stage. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released yesterday showed both candidates on 47 per cent among likely voters while a CBS poll today found Obama on 48 and Romney on 46. Gallup polls consistently give Mitt Romney a lead of up to six points over Obama. Long story short: all to play for.

“Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, they both look lovely tonight” – Wolf Blitzer focusing on the important issues already.

AND IT STARTS.

Bob Schieffer warns the audience not to make any noise at all because this is grown up debate about serious issues. He points out that it’s taking place on the 50th anniversary of the night that JFK told the world about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The first question is about the killing of the US ambassador to Libya. Romney previously said that the attack proved that the US policy on the Middle East was unravelling and Scheiffer asks them both what they think about that. Very broad question. Expect broad answers.

“We can’t kill our way out of this mess” – First soundbite of the night goes to Romney.

He says that the Arab Spring offered a lot of hope but what’s happening now is a “pretty dramatic reversal” of what the US wanted to see in the region.

We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism.

Within the first 10 seconds of answering the question, Obama brings up ending the war in Iraq. If this were a drinking game – and hell, there’s still time – then that would definitely have been a shot.

Obama says despite the perception of US intervention in the Middle East, the events in Benghazi which saw the US ambassador killed saw tens of thousands of Libyans marching and saying America is our friend. He tells Romney:

Your strategy… was all over the map. It is not designed to keep Americans safe.

Romney: My strategy is pretty straightforward – it’s to go after the bad guys. We need to get the Muslim world to reject extremism on its own.

Obama: I’m glad you recognise that al Qaeda is the biggest threat in the world because a few months ago when you were asked this, you said Russia.

This is feisty stuff from both candidates. Obama tells Romney: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back”. Romney shoots back: “Attacking me is not an agenda”.

Romney says Obama is misrepresenting what he said, and that he’d actually said Iran is the greatest national security threat to the US.

He says Russia is battling America at the UN. “I have clear eyes on this,” he says. “I’m not going to wear rose-coloured glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr Putin”.

Schieffer moves the debate to Syria. Obama: “I’m confident that Assad’s days are numbered”. He questions the wisdom of Romney saying that the US should arm the opposition in Syria.

He says America will do everything it can to help the opposition fighting against Assad’s government – but stresses the US needs to know who it’s helping so that arms don’t end up “in the hands of folks who could eventually turn them against us”.

Obama just said the US doesn’t want to “put arms in the hands of folks…”. Inadvertent moment of humour.

What do people think of Bob Schieffer’s moderation so far? The first half an hour has been very gentlemanly – very little interruptions, both candidates being given a long time to explain in depth their approach to the Middle East. Format seems to be suiting Romney slightly better; Obama looked more natural when they were able to stand up and walk around the stage compared to this more old-fashioned three-men-around-a-desk format.

Obama is basically laying down the tenets of the Obama doctrine as he describes how his administration dealt with Libya. He says the US was “careful, thoughful” about how it operated in Libya, and made sure it worked with moderate forces on the ground. He says this same approach is needed in Syria.

Well, that was fast. The debate has swung completely around to domestic policy. Romney is asked how he would build US foreign policy and he immediately attacks Obama’s record on the economy. “America must lead,” he says. “You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job”. He says Obama has had four years to build the economy to help lead the world but he has done bupkis*.

Obama rejects the suggestion that the economy is struggling. “It is stronger now than when I came into office”.

*He didn’t use the actual word bupkis but that’s what he was getting at.

Over at the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald notes both candidates are happily pivoting to domestic issues as often as they can:

Both candidates are eager to ignore the topic of this debate – foreign policy – in order to talk about the economy because they perceive, accurately, that this is what most voters care about, and because they don’t really have much to disagree in the foreign policy area. And so they are now dispensing with any pretense and regurgitating their economics debate.

The two are arguing about the ability to balance budgets. Obama hits Romney with the military – he says Romney wants to spend $2 trillion (!) more on the military, despite the fact that spending on it has increased every year that Obama has been in office.

Crazy statistic from Obama, who is clearly proud of it: “We spent more on our military than the next 10 countries combined”. Yowza.

A rare zing: Romney notes that the US Navy is smaller now than it was in 1917. Obama: “We also have fewer horses and bayonets… This isn’t a game of Battleship”.

Wow. I think that was some actual humour in what so far has been a very dry debate thus far.

Schieffer moves on to Israel and Iran. Obama says as long as he is president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

He also says that a report in the New York Times about negotiations between America and Iran about Iran’s nuclear plans are not true.

A lot of the debate is focusing on Israel. Schieffer asks what both men would do if the leader of Israel rang up to say that their bombers were on the way to bomb Iran.

Romney immediately pivots away from the question and says it would never happen – he has such a close relationship with Israel that he’d have spoken to Israel long before something like that would happen.

FACT-CHECK MOMENT: Rebecca Berg of Buzzfeed points out that the US army still uses bayonets. Oh.

Obama looks angrier than he has at any stage in the debate so far. Romney just accused him of going on an “apology tour” around the Middle East at the start of his term, and not taking the time to visit Israel.

Obama says that what Romney says was untrue and that the accusation was “probably the biggest whopper that has been told during the course of this campaign”. He says that his first trip abroad as a candidate was to Israel, and that he didn’t hold fundraisers there or bring donors along – a pointed jab at Romney, who did exactly that.

Bob Schieffer brings up what has consistently been one of the most controversial aspects of the Obama presidency: the covert use of unmanned drones to kill people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Romney has an opportunity here to put some distance between himself and Obama on this one – but he says he supports the use of drones entirely and that the president is completely right to use the technology in that way.

Schieffer brings up the rise of China and future challenges for America. Obama hedges his bets: he says China is both an adversary AND a potential partner – as long as it plays by the rules. He says American workers aren’t crazy about seeing their jobs shipped overseas. Romney echoes this. He says the US “can work with them… if they’re willing to be responsible”.

Romney is talking some big talk about China here:

That’s why on day one [in office] , I will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re
stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.

A moment ago they weren’t even adversaries. Now suddenly they’re the Big Bad.

Back to domestic policy: The candidates are actually arguing with each other  for what seems like the first time in the entire debate, which has been almost absurdly civil. Romney started talking about how he fully supports the auto industry in Detroit but disagreed with George W Bush’s decision to bail out the industry in 2008. Obama immediately references Romney’s ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt’ article in the New York Times from that same year and says it doesn’t exactly demonstrate support for the industry.

Obama: You keep on trying to airbrush history. You said you wouldn’t help Detroit’s automarkers if they went bankrupt.

Romney: It’s ridiculous to suggest I would have liquidated the auto industry. Obama: That’s not true. The people in Detroit remember.

Romney says he loves teachers. Bob Schieffer laughs. “I think everyone loves teachers”.

It’s almost time to wrap up. Bob Schieffer thanks both the candidates for a vigorous debate and asks them for closing statements.

Obama highlights the stability of the past four years. Romney says if Obama stays in office then America will be $20 trillion in debt, heading towards Greece levels of debt. “Washington is broken – I know what it takes to get the country back”.

Romney says that America is “the hope of the earth” without any sense of irony.

Bob Schieffer quotes his mother, telling the audience: “Go vote, it makes you feel big and strong” – and with that it’s all over.

Was Schieffer the best moderator of the three debates? I do like his aw-granddad shtick. He took a very non-interventionist approach: by my count he only cut off one candidate – Romney – when he tried to come back in on the Middle East discussion but did it so charmingly that Romney just smiled at him and immediately shut up.

The New York Times’  Richard A. Oppel Jr says that Obama made a deliberate effort to show his commitment to Israel in this debate:

In this debate, Mr. Obama has been careful to describe Israel as “our greatest ally in the region.” This is a change from his appearance on “60 Minutes” last month in which he described Israel as “one of our closest allies in the region.” That was a characterization that Romney aides quickly attacked, arguing that it showed a lack of support and loyalty to Israel. But by mentioning twice Monday night that Israel is the closest friend of the United States in that region, Mr. Obama seems to be going out of his way to avoid describing Israel the way he did last month.

First thoughts are that that was something of a strange debate. Israel took up more than ten minutes of the ninety minute debate – but there wasn’t a single mention of the Eurozone crisis at all. Not to be all self-centred or anything but that’s kind of a big deal.

There were a few good lines – expect to see Obama’s “We also have fewer horses and bayonets” made into a meme within the next hour – but there were no killer blows (or killer gaffes, for that matter).

One of the most striking things was how the two men agreed on several of the major issues, such as Afghanistan, drone attacks in Pakistan, and support for Israel. At times it seemed more like a discussion than a debate.

But what about the important stuff: who won in the completely unscientific polls carried out by US television channels?

The CBS News instant poll gives Obama 53 per cent and Romney 23 per cent. 24 per cent of people polled said it was a tie. (The margin of error is 4 per cent and the sample size was 521 people).

That would seem to tally with the immediate reaction on Twitter. Lot of people unconvinced either way but Obama is edging it ever so slightly. Thoughts?

Obligatory shot of both candidates looking relieved and clutching on to their wives:

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

CNN has the results of its all-powerful poll of registered voters who watched the debate. Wolf Blitzer keeps saying this is SCIENTIFIC just so we know it’s important. The results:

48 per cent say Obama won.

40 per cent say Romney won.

A few more figures from the SCIENTIFIC poll from CNN. It’s scientific, you know. It must be – Wolf Blitzer keeps yelling it in case we didn’t hear him the first time.

63 per cent said Obama could handle the job of commander-in-chief while 60 per cent said they thought Romney could handle it.  48 per cent said Obama was more likeable during the debate while 47 per cent went for Romney.

Meanwhile 68 per cent said Obama spent more time attacking his opponent compared to just 21 per cent for Romney.

Twitter has put together some interesting stats from this evening. There were 6.5 million tweets sent during the 90 minutes and the most tweeted moment? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Barack Obama’s “We also have fewer horses and bayonets” moment, which saw 105,767 tweets per minute.

Not sure what this says about the quality of the debate that the second most tweeted moment was Bob Schieffer’s “I think we all love teachers” which hit 102,339 tweets per minute.

That’s all, folks. We’ll be bringing you highlights from the debate later this morning but until then, go get some sleep. Thanks for sticking with us for this one and cheers for all the tweets and comments.

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