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Obama, Romney gear up for final presidential debate on foreign policy

The candidates spent their weekend swatting up on foreign policy with the latest poll putting them both at 47 per cent.

Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama during the second presidential debate earlier this month.
Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama during the second presidential debate earlier this month.
Image: David Goldman/AP/Press Association Images

ON THE EVE of their final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off yesterday -through their allies – over which candidate would best protect the nation’s interest and security abroad with just two weeks left in a race that polls show is increasingly tight.

Both candidates stayed largely out of view yesterday, no doubt preparing vigorously for tonight’s face-off focused on foreign policy.

Republicans accused Obama of leaking word of possible negotiations with Iran in pursuit of political gain. Democrats shot back, arguing that Romney and his party are the ones playing politics with national security.

Two weeks out, the race appears to be tied, with both candidates taking 47 percent among likely voters in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released yesterday that reflected a boost of support for Romney following his lauded performance in the first debate in early October.

Iran

Romney’s top supporters launched sweeping condemnations of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, assailing him over a deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and arguing that under the president’s negligent watch, Iran has crept closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who played Obama in Romney’s debate preparations, said a new report claiming the US and Iran had agreed to direct negotiations seemed like “another example of a national security leak from the White House.”

“They’ve done a lot of that,” Portman said, alluding to accusations over the summer that Obama’s administration was leaking information to bolster his political prospects ahead of the election. He was echoed by Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, who called the timing of the report “pretty obvious.”

The White House said Saturday that while it is prepared for direct talks with Iran, there’s no current agreement to meet. Yesterday, Obama’s backers credited him for isolating Iran within the global community and adopting effective sanctions that have crippled the Persian Gulf nation.

“For two years, the president travelled the world putting together a withering international coalition. And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees,” said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser. “They’re feeling the heat. And that’s what the sanctions were meant to do.”

Romney, taking a break from debate prep yesterday in Delray Beach, Fla, declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether he would be open to one-on-one talks with Iran.

“Breakdown of national security”

Still, Obama’s allies were wedged into a defensive posture as Republicans undertook an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to deflating Obama’s foreign policy record. Graham said the Libya attack reflected “one of the most major breakdowns of national security in a very long time.”

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla, in a clear nod to Cuban-American voters in his battleground state, even suggested Obama’s loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba had provided a source of cash for the Castro regime and undermined political freedoms.

Democrats were ready with indictments of their own. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the House GOP’s release Friday of 166 pages of Libya-related documents had put lives in danger.

“People around the world will now know that you’re at risk if you cooperate with the United States,” said Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff.

Romney’s supporters waxed optimistic that the race is trending in the Republican’s direction, even in crucial states like Ohio that Obama won four years ago and where unemployment is on the decline. Portman said he’s traversed his home state over the past two weeks on behalf of Romney and likes what he’s seeing on the ground.

“The enthusiasm energy is on our side this year. I mean, it’s not like 2008 at all,” he said.

Both candidates dedicated their weekend to intensive study for the debate; Obama huddled with advisers in Maryland and Romney with his team in Florida.

On the agenda were Iran-Israel tensions, China, terrorism and the war in Afghanistan — all subjects expected to come up in the 90-minute encounter moderated by CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. Although polls show the economy is of top concern to most voters, global affairs have cropped up as a key issue in the final weeks due to unrest in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

Final preparations

Romney paused his preparations to attend church with his wife yesterday morning and to watch his travelling press corps play touch football against his senior staff. The former Massachusetts governor presided over a coin toss on the beach, then gathered his aides to cheer them on.

“That’s right, don’t worry about injuries guys, this counts. Win,” he joked.

Romney didn’t talk politics, refusing to answer a question about whether, if elected, he would be open to direct talks with Iran. Questions from reporters about the new poll and tonight’s debate likewise went unanswered.

Obama arrived Friday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, where he’s been holding 12-hour practice sessions, starting with policy discussions at 10 am Obama and his team hold mock debates in the evening in a set designed to look like the one in Boca Raton, Fla., where the two White House hopefuls will square off for the last time. Ron Klain, a former White House aide brought back for debate prep, is playing the role of Schieffer.

Axelrod and Portman spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” while Emanuel appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Graham spoke on “Fox News Sunday” and Rubio on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The debate will start at 9pm Eastern time or around 2am GMT.

-Additional reporting by Michelle Hennessy.

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