U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will square off for the final time Oct. 22 in a debate expected to cover topics ranging from Libya to defense spending to Iran to China.
The third presidential debate comes as a race that polls say is a dead heat heads into the final weeks. The candidates will debate foreign policy issues for 90 minutes, an event former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is dubbing the “most important debate.”
Rumsfeld made that declaration on Twitter, adding, “Voters need to be clear where candidates stand on U.S. role in the world.”
A new poll from the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government suggests voters want details from both candidates on their envisioned foreign policy approaches. The poll, conducted earlier this month in Ohio and Florida, reveals mixed feelings among 1,203 active voters in the two swing states about America’s proper role in world affairs.
In Florida, 48 percent of those surveyed want Washington to take a lesser role in the world’s problems, while 45 percent want an active America. And in Ohio, 51 percent of those polled want an active U.S. in global affairs, while 42 percent want a less-active foreign policy approach.
On specific issues, the candidates’ views on how they would handle Iran, and their approaches to combating terrorism, topped voters’ lists. In Florida, 72 percent told the Belfer Center they are “very interested” in hearing the candidates’ views on Iran, with 61 percent answering the same in Ohio. On terrorism, 69 percent of those polled in Florida are “very interested” in Obama’s and Romney’s views, with 64 percent in Ohio giving the same answer.
With the debate just hours away (9 p.m. EST), here are a handful of issues that should be prominent:
Libya. Expect Romney to try and land a few blows over the ongoing controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s handling of the run-up to, and aftermath of, the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left the American ambassador and three others dead.
In recent days, congressional Republicans have raised the stakes, accusing the Obama administration of orchestrating a cover-up of its handling of the consulate.
“When there is a cover-up, it’s always worse than the incident itself,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said during an Oct. 20 television interview. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee, also dropped a cover-up allegation over the weekend.
Iran. Are there really big differences between the approach the Obama administration has taken to pressure Iran to end its nuclear arms program through ever-tighter sanctions, and the approach Romney would use? Romney vows to be tougher on Tehran, but describes a plan that sounds a lot like the one his opponent has been using for several years.
During an Oct. 8 address, the GOP nominee vowed to “put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.”
But in the very next sentence, he laid out a plan that sounded nearly identical to the tactics the Obama administration has been employing for months. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran and will tighten the sanctions we currently have,” Romney said.
Military Spending, Size and Purpose. Obama has tried several times to hammer Romney for proposing to spend $2 trillion more on the military than Pentagon leaders even want. With that line a part of Obama’s campaign-trail stump speech, it’s likely he will try to get more mileage out of the claim during the final debate.
Analysts say it is very clear Obama favors a much smaller military than the one envisioned by Romney, and that they view American military power differently. This debate could provide voters with a clear explanation of those differences.
“Romney has made clear that his foreign policy views reflect a more traditional perspective,” said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. “He is concerned with state-based threats such as Iran and North Korea, as well as strategic competitors like China and Russia. … This means a Romney foreign policy inherently places more importance upon military strength than the Obama vision.”
Yet, the GOP nominee has been criticized for labeling Russia as America’s top strategic foe. Romney has said he would swell the annual Pentagon budget, but so far has only said he would buy six more naval ships a year.
On an Oct. 22 conference call with reporters, Senate Armed Services Committee member Jack Reed, D-R.I., defended Obama’s plans to shrink the Army and Marines.
“The military has said, ‘We can reduce the size of the land forces’ because it is unlikely America will take on another troop-intensive counterinsurgency and reconstruction operation like the Iraq or Afghanistan missions,” Reed said.
“What we need are forces for the full spectrum of operations,” Reed told reporters, “not just for counterinsurgency.”
The Democratic senator then added: “I think the president is building off of strategy,” while the GOP nominee “is building off of rhetoric.”