BOCA RATON, Fla. - President Barack Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy as the two presidential rivals squared off in their third and final debate with the race in a dead heat two weeks before Election Day.
Obama used Monday night's debate to criticize Romney's support for beginning the war in Iraq, for opposing his plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, for inconsistent stances on Afghanistan and for opposing nuclear treaties with Russia.
"Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama said.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, responded that "attacking me is not an agenda" for dealing with a dangerous world. He accused Obama of sending the wrong signals to Iran's leaders by showing weakness in the Middle East.
"We're four years closer to a nuclear Iran," he said. Still, Romney stressed that war is a last option to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, softening the hawkish tone that had been a hallmark of his campaign.
If and how the debate would affect the Nov. 6 presidential election was not clear. Foreign policy, the theme of the debate at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida, has not been a major issue in a race centred on the U.S. economy. But both candidates were determined to appear to be strong leaders, rallying their supporters and winning over the remaining undecided voters.
There was none of the finger-pointing and little of the interrupting that marked their debate last week, when Obama needed a comeback after a listless performance in their first meeting on Oct. 3. Still, the two men frequently sniped at one another.
Romney, though, was more measured than Obama, agreeing with the president on a number of issues, perhaps seeking to appear more moderate to centrist voters who may determine the election's outcome. He barely mentioned what has become the hottest foreign policy issue in the campaign: the Obama's administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Obama, from the opening moments, wasn't as subdued. He said Romney would reinstate the unpopular foreign policies of President George W. Bush. He accused him of frequently changing positions on how he would have handled Iraq and Afghanistan and jabbed at Romney's comments during the campaign that Russia is the United States' No. 1 geopolitical foe.
"Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama said.
Romney said that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past year has resulted in a "rising tide of chaos." He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with change sweeping the Middle East.
Romney described an Obama trip to the Middle East early in his presidency as an "apology tour" that bolstered U.S. adversaries while bypassing close ally Israel. Obama called that accusation the "biggest whopper" of the presidential campaign.
After Romney, criticizing the administration's defence budget, disapprovingly said the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than at any time since the end of World War I, Obama mockingly accused his rival of not understanding how the military works. "We also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed," he said. "We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them."
Foreign policy is generally seen as Obama's strength and he highlighted two of his campaign's main points: that he gave the order leading to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and fulfilled a promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Romney, a multimillionaire businessman, has little foreign affairs experience.
Romney congratulated Obama "on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida." But he added, "we can't kill our way out of this mess. ... We must have a comprehensive and robust strategy."
With polls showing few voters likely to be swayed by foreign affairs, the candidates repeatedly turned the discussion back to the slowly recovering U.S. economy.
Both talked about being tough on China's trade practices they see as hurting U.S. businesses. That's a big issue in the industrial swing state of Ohio. The election is a state-by-state contest and the outcome in a small number of states that are not predictably Democratic or Republican, including Ohio, will determine the winner.
Romney repeated his threat to designate China a currency manipulator and punish it for intellectual property theft. He said China can be a partner, but "that does not mean they can just roll all over us and take our jobs."
Obama described China as both an adversary and a potential international partner. He defended his record in addressing China's trade violations, saying his administration had brought more cases than George W. Bush had in two terms.
There were several areas of agreement. Romney backed Obama's decision to remove support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both also said they oppose sending U.S. troops to Syria where opposition groups are fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.
Romney said the 2010 surge of 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a success and asserted that efforts to train Afghan security forces are on track to enable the U.S. and its allies to put the Afghans fully in charge of security by the end of 2014. He said that U.S. forces should complete their withdrawal on that schedule; previously he has criticized the setting of a specific withdrawal date.
Both candidates underscored their support for Israel against a threat from Iran. "If Israel is attacked, we have their back," said Romney — moments after Obama vowed, "I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked."
The debate was moderated by veteran newsman Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
With the final debate behind them, both men are embarking on a two-week whirlwind of campaigning. The president is slated to speak in six states during a two-day trip that begins Wednesday. Romney intends to visit two or three states a day.
Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.