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Obama And Romney Battle Over Foreign Policy In Final Debate

Candidates Try To Distance Themselves On Topics, But Agree On Many Others
President Barack Obama debates with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama debates with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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BOCA RATON, Fla. (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama sharply challenged Mitt Romney on foreign policy in their final campaign debate Monday night, saying, “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong.” The Republican coolly responded, “Attacking me is not an agenda” for dealing with a dangerous world.

Romney took the offensive, too. When Obama said the U.S. and its allies have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran to halt nuclear weapons development, the Republican challenger responded that the U.S. should have done more. He declared repeatedly, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.”

A CBS News Instant Poll asking a sample size of 521 uncommitted voters “Who won the debate” resulted in 53 percent saying President Obama won, while 23 percent said Romney won with 24 percent saying it was a tie. The poll has a 4 percent margin of error.

However, it was not as contentious a debate as the last one. In fact, perhaps the most surprising thing about the debate may have been just how much they agreed on, CBS 2′s Don Dahler reported.

That was especially apparent on the issue of Israel.

“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 direct U.S. military involvement in the efforts to topple Syrian President Bashir Assad.

Romney offered unusual praise for Obama’s war efforts in Afghanistan, declaring the 2010 surge of 33,000 U.S. troops a success and asserting 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.

However, the candidates sought to distinguish their positions where they were able.

On the Middle East, 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, and he added ominously that an al Qaeda-like group has taken over northern Mali.

Anticipating one of Obama’s most frequent campaign assertions, Romney said of the man seated nearby, “I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al Qaeda. But we can’t kill our way out of this. … We must have a comprehensive strategy.”

More than a half hour later, Obama returned to the subject, saying that Romney had once said it wasn’t worth moving heaven and earth to catch one man, a reference to the mastermind behind the 9/11 terror attacks.

He said he had decided it was “worth heaven and earth.”

Even though polls show the economy is front and center in the minds of most Americans, any presidential candidate has to be able to assure voters he is capable of dealing with complex and potentially dangerous issues.

But despite the debate’s stated focus on foreign affairs, time after time the rivals turned the discussion back to the slowly recovering U.S. economy, which polls show is the No. 1 issue for most voters.

Obama and Romney are locked in a close race in national opinion polls. The final debate behind them, both men intend to embark on a final two-week whirlwind of campaigning. The president is slated to speak in six states during a two-day trip that begins Wednesday and includes a night aboard Air Force One as it flies from Las Vegas to Tampa. Romney intends to visit two or three states a day.

Already 4 million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)