Barack Obama and Mitt Romney faced off on foreign policy in the final presidential debate on Monday night. The argument was feisty, sometimes bitter. Israel was cited frequently. Here’s how it unfolded in our liveblog.

Preamble: The first presidential debate brought Republican challenger Mitt Romney back into a contest that had looked like it was over. The second installment revived President Barack Obama’s campaign. Tonight’s third round just might make a difference in the key swing states that will determine the elections — swing states like Florida, where tonight’s face-off is being held.

A worker vacuums the set for Monday's presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. (photo credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A worker vacuums the set for Monday’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. (photo credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Foreign policy barely figured in rounds one or two, apart from a little bust-up between the would-be leaders about whether Obama had swiftly designated the September 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate in which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed as an act of terrorism. Tonight, that fatal incident is certain to figure, as too is Iran and the strategies these two men would follow in order to thwart the Islamist regime’s march to the bomb.

US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greet each other as they arrive for the presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (photo credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

For folks in Israel, and for folks for whom Israel is a key concern, the Iran section tonight will be immensely interesting. If Israel doesn’t use its firepower soon, its leaders say, it won’t be able to militarily impact the Iranian program; Israel’s destiny, therefore, might rest on America’s readiness, if all else fails, to use force to thwart Iran. Would a second term president Obama be prepared to order that use of force? Would a first term president Romney? Their answers tonight will have been painstakingly considered; and they’ll be painstakingly scrutinized.

CBS News is reporting that 11% of voters are still undecided. It also says Obama’s lead in key swing state Ohio, a full 10 percent at 53%-43% just a month ago, has been cut in half to 50%-45%.

Romney is planning to argue that the president’s policy is unraveling in the Middle East, the CBS report says. Obama, for his part, is going to take a more assertive position in setting out his policies on the region.

Unlike the previous two debates, the two candidates will not be strutting around, squaring up to each other. They’ll be seated this time, which will immediately give a different feel to proceedings.

 

Bob Schieffer (photo credit: CBS News)

Our moderator tonight is CBS veteran Bob Schieffer, 75, who has handled the third debate in the past two elections as well — between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, and Obama and John McCain in 2008.

While we wait for proceedings to begin in a little over an hour, here’s some good reading. This is Times of Israel editor David Horovitz’s oped on how ridiculous the whole debate business is… and how he wishes Israel had something similar. Israel would be well served, he writes, if it too staged these “brief, humbling encounters, when the man who would be king is reminded that he is nothing of the kind, and faces a public demanding answers, and a moderator who tells him when he can and can’t talk.”

And here’s our US correspondent Haviv Rettig Gur wondering whether Romney will tonight get specific on his Iran policy.

Schieffer chose the segments for the debate himself. The 90 minutes are supposed to break down into six 15-minute segments, though we’ll see if our host can hold the candidates to the times.

Those segments are supposed to focus as follows:

• America’s role in the world.

• Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan.

• Red lines – Israel and Iran.

• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 1.

• The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, Part 2.

• The rise of China and tomorrow’s world.

Analysts have been saying that, given a full term of foreign policy experience, Obama holds an advantage in tonight’s debate. We shall see. Doubtless Romney’s counter will be along the lines of, “You’ve had four years; look what you’ve done with it.” Of course, an analyst on Britain’s Sky News just noted, if Romney looks “half-way presidential,” that might constitute something of a victory.

Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)

Meanwhile, here’s a piece from earlier in the day in which Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief who has been relentlessly critical of Romney’s stance on Iran, and supportive of Obama’s, weighs in again.

Meanwhile, the audience in Boca Raton is in the hall at Lynn University, enjoying the countdown.

Watching these debates through Israeli eyes has underlined the wonderful simplicity and accountability of the US election process. It may not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than ours here.

You’re managing with two parties for 330 million people, and electing representatives with specific geographical areas of responsibility. We’re going to have dozens of parties running to represent our fewer than eight million people when we vote on January 22, 2013, and none of our members of Knesset will be elected on a constituency basis. Instead, it’s pure proportional representation. A recipe for coalition chaos, making a hard-to-govern country all the harder for a prime minister to lead.

Here’s our diplomatic correspondent with a primer on our elections. Got to love this headline: The Knesset expects: Lots of Labor and one or two Bibis! Get it? Knesset expectslaborBibis…!

Still, Israel’s election is looking a whole lot easier to call than America’s.

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg (photo credit: Courtesy)

We enjoyed this piece from earlier today too — Rettig Gur’s interview with the head of Rabbis for Romney, who has entered the fray in order to emphasize that, er, the pulpit is no place for party politics. Gotta read it to understand it.

A new CBS News poll, just out, looked at the candidates and foreign policy.

Obama leads Romney 50-41% among likely voters on the question of who would do a better job on foreign policy. Likely voters also viewed Obama as stronger on terrorism and security, the poll, taken October 17-20, said: 49% said Obama would do a better job, and 42% said Romney would. On US policy toward Iran, Obama edged Romney 46% to 43%.

On US policy toward China, the candidates are even at 44%.

And on Israel, Romney has an edge, with 46% to Obama’s 42%.

In its overall presidential polling, CBS has Obama ahead 48% to 46%.

The audience is settling down. The wives are in their seats. Bob Schieffer has taken his moderator’s seat. Here we go, in the last job interview for arguably the most important post in the world.

Obama and Romney enter. Greet each other and Schieffer. He reminds them of the 50th anniversary we’re marking of the Cuban missile crisis. And he begins with a question on Libya — the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Romney talks about the “disturbing events” that have followed the Arab spring — killings in Syria, the terrorist attack in Libya, “a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt” and a “reversal” of hopes in the region. Notably, Iran is four years closer to a nuclear weapon.

The region has to be persuaded to reject Islamic extremism.

Obama responds by saying he’s kept the American people safe. Al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated. The US has “transitioned” in Afghanistan. The US is making new friends around the world. And on Libya, the US will go after those who killed the ambassador and three other Americans.

Obama faults Romney for lacking a strategy. Romney counters that the US has to “go after the leaders” of the Islamic extremist groups, and then details ideas for economic aid, promoting education and gender equality.

The challenger talks of “a rising tide of chaos” in the region, where Obama had asserted that US policy, including in Libya, was making progress.

Our Haviv Rettig Gur notes: Romney isn’t Bush. That’s Romney’s first message: We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan.

Obama is hitting Romney hard for overstating Russia as an enemy and understating Al-Qaeda. US needs “strong, steady leadership… not wrong and reckless leadership” like Romney’s would be.

Romney: Attacking me is not an agenda.

A very bitter you said, no I didn’t exchange on Iraq. Obama is keeping up the energy level of debate two, rather than the lethargy of debate one, and Romney seems more on the defensive.

Obama makes a first reference to Israel — “a true friend” and America’s greatest ally in the region.

Obama again cites Israel, as having “a huge interest” in what unfolds in Syria.

Rettig Gur notes: Some strategy comments: The point in this debate is to look like the commander in chief, nothing more. Most viewers won’t follow the details. Obama has used the term “commander in chief” three times in 12 minutes, to my count. (And mentioned Israel twice.) Romney’s challenge is to look as though he’s on par with Obama, nothing more. 

Both men say Assad has to go; neither wants to get drawn into a military conflict in Syria.

Romney makes his first Israel mention — on the need to coordinate with Israel on Syria.

Romney indicates that Obama has dragged his feet in Libya; not enough leadership.

Obama defends his handling of Libya — had “to finish the job” but in a careful way.

Rettig Gur: Romney’s job is to calm voters that he isn’t Bush — and to win on the economy issue elsewhere. So he’s working to be non-aggressive. Schieffer just threw Obama a softball — “How come you dislike dictatorship so much?”

Israel again from Obama — Egypt must respect its treaty with Israel.

Notes Rettig Gur: Obama’s mention of Israel a third time is as a “red line” on Egypt. Obama is very smart tonight. Using “red line” on Israel. Noting that Qaddafi is second only to Bin Laden in killing of Americans. He came prepared.

Romney’s key message: We won’t be strong around the world unless it has a strong economy. Quotes Admiral Mullen saying ‘our debt is our greatest security threat.’

Schieffer moves on now to America’s role in the world. Romney wants to promote human rights, dignity, elections… but “America must be strong, America must lead.” And that means a strong economy — Romney shifting to the economy at every opportunity, where he feels Obama is weak. “We have to also stand by our allies.” Speaks of “unfortunate” tension with Israel. And US has to stand “by our principles” — Obama made “an enormous mistake” in not helping Iranians rise up in 2009.

Obama hits back, speaks of “unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, where we’ve been dealing with the Iranian threat.” Clearly, an early focus of this debate is each candidate’s effort to outdo the other on support for Israel.

And Romney steers back to the economy again, and opportunities for the US in Latin America. And highlights the need for improved training programs for workers, education reform, a balanced budget.

Mitt Romney in Monday's debate (photo credit: PBS SCreenshot)

Obama is hitting back on Romney’s record on small businesses. We’ve gone of the foreign policy ranch here.

Romney defends his record, as Schieffer makes a rather plaintive plea to “get back to foreign policy.”

Notes Josh Block from The Israel Project: “Good to hear both candidates talking about the choices we face in Egypt. As our recent poll found found, the choice facing the people in Egypt and the West there is not between the extreme islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood vs the extreme islamists of the Salafist Nour party. In fact, the most popular institution in the country is the military, far more so that the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists barely register double digits. In fact, 50% of the population voted for an the non-Islamist candidate who said he would visit Israel and uphold the peace treaty. Here is a recent write up of the poll: http://bit.ly/RR5Yxa

Barack Obama speaks in Monday's debate (photo credit: PBS screenshot)

We’re still off foreign policy here. Back in the arguments about taxation, and how Romney’s plans can be funded.

Obama is picking up the theme of debate two, that Romney’s figures don’t add up. Romney’s charging Obama with an ongoing failure to balance the budget. Romney: President hasn’t balanced a budget yet. I’ve balanced budgets all my life.

Romney vows he won’t cut the military budget. Obama is a little hesitant on military spending, but now attacks Romney for not recognizing the changing nature of the military.

Key section; Red lines on Iran.

Schieffer: Would an attack on Israel constitute an attack on the US.

Obama: I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. Strongest military cooperation in history. Biggest military drill with Israel this week. “As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”

Still Obama: A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and to Israel’s security. Iran “has said that it wants to see Israel wiped off the map.”

“We’re not going to take any options off the table.”

Disagreement with Romney over “premature” military action. Send men and women to war only “as a last resort.”

Romney: “If Israel is attacked, we have their back” — “militarily” if necessary.

He says he’ll stop a nuclear capable Iran — an earlier stage than a nuclear-armed Iran.

“I would tighten those sanctions” — on Iranian oil shipments, on oil trading with Iran. He would “indict” Ahmadinejad for inciting genocide against Israel under UN conventions.

“Military action is the last resort — it is something one would only, only consider if all the other avenues had been tried to the full extent.”

Notes Rettig Gur: Romney says “weapons CAPABILITY” — but Israel wants to know more details. Does it mean bombing during the enrichment phase? Romney: “Of course a military action is a last resort.” Romney isn’t Bush. Did he mention that?

Obama: We had to get ALL countries on board with sanctions. We got EVERYBODY to agree; that’s why there’s so much pressure on Iran. “There is a deal to be had” — if Iran halts its program. But in the meantime, “the clock is ticking… We’re not going to allow Iran to perpetuate… negotiations that go nowhere.”

Obama: We’d have a “sense” if Iran makes the breakout to the bomb.

Romney: Iran has looked at this administration and seen weakness. Blames Obama’s “apology tour” early in his administration, and his “silence” during the 2009 Iran protests, and the “daylight” Obama said he’d create with Israel, all to blame. Obama failed to show strength. Iran ‘”must not develop nuclear capability.” If the pressure is tight, we won’t have to resort to military force.

Obama accuses Romney of telling “whoppers”. Sanctions are unprecedented — and “you were still invested” in a business that had dealings with Iran. Obama says he did show strength at time of Iran domestic protests.

Romney: We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. You toured the region “and you skipped Israel” — US’s closest ally.

Obama: I went to Israel as a candidate. I didn’t take fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem the Holocaust memorial. I went to Sderot and saw families who showed me where missiles had fallen from Gaza. We funded Iron Dome. “That’s how I’ve used my travels.”

President plainly anticipated those attacks from Romney, because the counter was powerful.

Question: What if Israel’s PM says he’s sent bombers to Iran?

Romney: Let’s not go into hypotheticals. Israel wouldn’t act in that way.

Israeli analyst Chico Menashe tweets: Did Obama just invoke the Holocaust to explain his travel itineraries?

Romney says Democratic senators have asked him to repair the damage  he’s done to ties with Israel.

Obama: Here, as in so many other areas, your policies “have been all over the map.”

The Iran segment is done. We’re onto Afghanistan now.

That was very feisty stuff. Obama is sounding experienced and well-prepared. Romney trying to dent the sense of presidential competence, with only limited success.

Obama keeps capitalizing on the fact that he’s been doing the job for the past four years, that Romney is sniping from the outside. The challenger has an uphill struggle here.

A tweet making the rounds, source unknown, “Sounds like Obama went on Birthright.”

No doubt that the president got his Israel credentials in early and repeatedly. An area where Romney may have been able to hurt him, negotiated effectively. You had a fundraiser. I went to Yad Vashem…

Pew Research tweeted on Afghanistan: Most [Americans] continue to favor quick troop pullout from Afghanistan http://pewrsr.ch/T3cOml  pic.twitter.com/cVv6L4il

Obama hails the transition he’s overseen in Afghanistan.

Romney worries about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If Pakistan falls apart, you’ve got terrorists there who could grab their nuclear weapons. Praises Obama for getting bin Laden. Now must help Pakistan move to a more responsible course.

Romney takes on Obama now for deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “We haven’t had negotiations for two years.”

Obama: Al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office.

Schieffer takes the discussion on to China. Romney talks up the need to be tough on China for taking jobs, stealing intellectual property, counterfeiting our goods.

Notes Rettig Gur: Debate keeps coming back to the economy. That’s what the China segment is about. Romney has more numbers when it comes to economic issues that came up in this whole debate. Seems as though Romney was prepared for the economic debate, and used every chance he could to come back to it. Obama prepared more for foreign policy. Both sides have done well so far, but in different issues. Romney may have made a smart move on China, as Pew suggests: #China seen by Americans as country posing greatest danger to US #lynnedebate http://pewrsr.ch/OAWJih  pic.twitter.com/GK4YtUWP

Obama says Romney invested in company that took US jobs overseas. Stresses the need to invest in US jobs, better education, progress on clean energy technology. US exports to China have doubled since he came into office he said.

Romney defends himself on seeking to boost American jobs. Defends himself on policy toward the auto industry. Again, a rehash of debate two on this issue. “I have never said I would liquidate the industry.”

“Let’s look at the record,” says Obama.

Obama says Romney would reward companies that ship jobs overseas. “We can’t go back to the same policies that got us into such difficulties in the first place.”

Romney: “I don’t want to go back to the policies of the past four years.”

We’re deep into the same economic territory of debate two now.

Google Politics tweets: “A sharp spike in @Google Searches for bayonets during the debate: +7215%”

Viewers evidently heard bayonets earlier in the debate — when Obama was implying that Romney was not familiar with all the nuances of the modern military — and wondered what they were.

Closing statements now.

Obama says Romney’s foreign policies would be “wrong and reckless” and then moves back to the economy again — job creation, deficit reduction, investing in research and technology.

“I will maintain the strongest military in the world” but “after a decade of war” it’s time to do some rebuilding at home. “I will always listen to your voices…”

Romney sums up, saying he’s optimistic about the future, and that America needs “real leadership” to promote American interests at home and abroad. He promises to get the domestic economy on track, to get take-home pay up, get people back to work. “America’s going to come back.” Need to fix Washington, he says, working with good Democrats and good Republicans.

“I’ll work with you. I’ll lead you in an open and honest way” to “maintain America as the hope of the earth.”

Schieffer ends with his mother’s “go vote” message.

Handshakes, and smiling exchange. And back to the wives and family members.

So now the two sides will argue about who prevailed. No disasters for either, it seems from here.

It was striking how central Israel was early on, with each man plainly determined to assuage concerns of pro-Israel voters.

It was also striking that, for all the words spoken, we got very little new specifics on how either man would tackle Iran.

Thanks for following this with us live. Keep up with more analysis and reporting ahead, at The Times of Israel.