BOCA RATON, Florida — President Barack Obama accused Republican candidate Mitt Romney of being consistently wrong on foreign affairs as the two presidential rivals squared off in their third and final debate Monday with the race in a dead heat two weeks before Election Day.
Internet polls conducted immediately after the debate showed that Obama came away as the clear winner. A CNN poll showed that 48 percent of respondents felt that the president won the debate, while 40% thought that Romney was the victor, and 51% thought Obama “seemed to be the stronger leader,” against 46% for Romney.
An online poll of Washington Post readers also gave the debate to Obama, 74% to 26%, and a CBS snap poll, conducted via Twitter immediately after the debate, showed Obama winning, 53% to 23%, with 24% calling it a tie.
The CBS News poll of undecided voters showed a stark divide, with 71% saying they would trust Obama to handle an international crisis, versus 49% for Romney, and 64% saying that Obama would do a better job on national security issues, against 36% for Romney.
It is unclear how much the debate will affect the final voting. Responding to the question, “Who did the debate make you likely to vote for,” 50% of respondents to the CNN poll said “neither” candidate, while 25% answered Obama and 24% Romney.
On Monday night, Obama criticized 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 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.
The debate on foreign affairs came as international issues have taken a higher profile in a race that has been dominated by economic issues.
Foreign policy is generally seen as Obama’s strength and, in the debate, 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 US troops from Iraq. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and wealthy businessman, has little foreign affairs experience.
But Romney has recently been on the offensive on international issues and has trimmed Obama’s advantage in foreign affairs. In the debate, he said Obama sent the wrong signal to Iranian leaders by going on an “apology tour” early in his presidency, while not visiting Israel. “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,” he said.
Obama called the “apology tour” comment the “biggest whopper” in the campaign. He said he showed his strength in Iran by mobilizing the world to support sanctions.
For the second week in a row, Obama went on the offensive from the opening moments of the debate as he continued to try to bounce back from a lackluster performance in the first debate on Oct. 3. That encounter led to a rise in opinion polls for Romney.
The debate performances have been judged at least as much by the general impressions of the candidates as by their specific proposals. With polls showing few voters ranking foreign affairs among their top concerns, the candidates were vying to leave the impression that they are strong leaders.
Obama 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.
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.”
Both also said they oppose sending to US troops to Syria where opposition groups are fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Obama was seen as having the advantage going into Mondays’ foreign policy debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. But that also meant that expectations were higher for the president — a precarious position for a candidate in a tight race.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday ahead of the debate showed Obama and Romney tied, with both candidates backed by 47 percent of likely voters nationwide.
Both candidates were looking to energize their supporters in the final weeks of the campaign and win over a dwindling number of undecided voters in key states. The election is a state-by-state contest and the outcome in a small number of states that are not predictably Democratic or Republican will determine the winner.
To that end, China has been the focus of much of the foreign policy discussion, with both candidates tying it to the loss of US manufacturing jobs — a big issue in Ohio, an important industrial state. Romney says Obama has failed to stop China from stealing American intellectual property or from keeping its currency artificially low, hurting US businesses. He has pledged to declare Chinese a currency manipulator, which could lead to sanctions.
Obama has highlighted actions he has taken against China before international trade bodies. He accuses Romney of outsourcing US jobs to China when he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital.
But the biggest issue lately has been Libya. Republicans say the Obama administration didn’t provide enough security at the consulate in Benghazi and misled Americans by playing down the likelihood it was a terrorist attack. They say this reflects the failure of US policy in the Middle East.
So far, though, Libya has been a tough issue for Romney. A statement he issued immediately after the attack, before the death of the ambassador was known, was seen as ill-timed and opportunistic. And his attempt to confront Obama on Libya in the second debate backfired when the moderator supported Obama’s claim that the president had called the killings an act of terror the day after the attacks. Obama’s heated rejoinder calling Romney’s comments offensive was one of the most widely played excerpts from the debate.
The debate was moderated by veteran newsman Bob Schieffer of CBS News.