When they step onto the debate stage in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday for their third and final debate, President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney will be talking about foreign affairs even as they make one last push to win over a national audience more concerned about the economy and jobs.
Monday's debate will be a tiebreaker of sorts for the two presidential candidates. Romney clearly dominated their first meeting on Oct. 3, and while Republicans insist Romney also held his own in their second standoff last week, most analysts credit Obama with finally showing the energy and assertiveness his supporters have been demanding.
Now running virtually even, Obama and Romney will both be looking for a breakaway moment in a debate that effectively shifts the conversation away from the race's main focus. Instead of talking about the economy, they will be asked about global affairs.
Incumbent presidents typically hold an upper hand in debates about international relations and national security, experts said. And Obama has had his share of successes in that area, including winding down two wars and killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But more recent events have given Romney an opening that Republicans hope he can exploit.
The administration is under fire for its handling of a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left the U.S. ambassador and three others dead. The White House at first insisted the attack was part of the spontaneous violence erupting elsewhere in the Middle East over an anti-Muslim video. It was weeks before the administration acknowledged that it was a coordinated terrorist attack.
Republicans contend the White House was misleading the country and that the administration failed to heed calls for additional security at the consulate. And those are the points Romney is going to raise in the debate.
"Both candidates have strengths going into this debate," Todd Graham, debate director at Southern Illinois University, told The Washington Examiner.
Obama may have given Romney additional ammunition on the issue when, during an appearance on Comedy Central's "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" last week, he described the four American deaths as "not optimal." Obama drew an immediate rebuke from the mother of one of the men killed.
"My son is not very optimal," the mother told the Daily Mail, a British newspaper. "He is very dead."
"The whole 'optimal' comment removes the likability factor here" for Obama, said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "What Romney is really trying to fight to overcome here is the perception that Obama is strong on foreign policy."
Graham cautioned Romney not to wade too deeply into foreign policy issues that are at best a secondary concern for voters. Instead, Romney should try to relate the foreign policy issues back to domestic economic issues, he said.
"Romney needs to pick his disagreements more carefully and the rest of the time pivot toward the economy and how the economy can help in these foreign policy areas," Graham said.
Obama, he said, should do the opposite.
"His job is to remind people that foreign policy is important," Graham said, "because he will probably win on the experience level, and he will be able to talk about what he has done well, including taking out Osama bin Laden."