WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney prepared for Monday's third and final presidential debate, which will focus on foreign policy, especially the Middle East and terrorism. It is their last chance to directly confront each other before millions of TV viewers with polls showing the race deadlocked.
The 90-minute debate in Boca Raton, Florida, comes just 15 days before the Nov. 6 election.
While the economy has been the dominant theme of the election, foreign policy has attracted renewed media attention in the aftermath of last month's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Obama had ranked well with the public on his handling of international issues and in fighting terrorism, especially following the death of Osama bin Laden. But the administration's response to the Libya attack and questions over levels of security at the consulate have given Romney and his Republican allies an issue with which to raise doubts about Obama's foreign policy leadership.
Romney's team has focused on Libya, following reports that Obama's administration could have known early on that militants, not protesters angry over a film produced in the U.S. that ridiculed Islam, launched the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador there. Within 24 hours of the attack, the CIA station chief in Libya told Washington about eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants, officials told The Associated Press.
The report from the CIA station chief was written late Wednesday, Sept. 12, and reached intelligence agencies in Washington the next day, intelligence officials said. It is not clear how widely the information was circulated. U.S. intelligence officials have said the information was just one of many widely conflicting accounts, which became clearer by the following week.
Obama has insisted that information about the Libya attack was shared with the American people as it came in.
Also breaking on the eve of the debate was news that Obama's administration is prepared to talk one-on-one with Iran to find a diplomatic settlement to the impasse over Tehran's reported pursuit of nuclear weapons.
However, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and will do whatever's necessary to prevent that from happening. Vietor said Iran must come in line with its obligations, or else faced increased pressure.
Iran has been a recurring issue in the presidential election campaign and Vietor's statement was released shortly after The New York Times reported Saturday that the U.S. and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to negotiations. The paper said Iran has insisted the talks wait until after the Nov. 6 election. Vietor, however, denied that any such agreement had been reached.
Heading into the campaign's final weeks, the economy and other domestic issues remain the main focus of both candidates.
Romney is upping his criticism of Obama's plans for a second term, accusing the Democrat of failing to tell Americans what he would do with four more years. The Obama campaign is aggressively disputing the notion, claiming it's Romney who hasn't provided specific details to voters.
At campaign events, and in a new ad and fundraising appeal out Saturday, Romney is setting up the closing weeks as a choice between what he says is Obama's "small" campaign that's offering little new policy and his own ambitious plan to fundamentally change America's tax code and entitlement programs.
The new Romney ad criticizes the president's policies on debt, health care, taxes, and energy, arguing that Obama is simply offering more of the same. The fundraising appeal hits Obama for raising taxes and increasing the debt by $5.5 trillion, repeating the lack-of-agenda criticism.
Obama's campaign disputes the notion that the president hasn't outlined a detailed second-term agenda, pointing to his calls for immigration reform, ending tax breaks for upper income earners, fully implementing his health care overhaul and ending the war in Afghanistan.
Obama, at the Democratic National Convention, called for creating 1 million manufacturing jobs over the next four years with a mix of corporate tax rate cuts and innovation and training programs. He has set a goal of cutting the growth of college tuition in half over the next 10 years. He also has called for Congress to pass proposals he made last year that include includes tax credits for companies that hire new workers and funding for local municipalities to hire more teachers, police officers and firefighters.
The president's aides are particularly irked by the questions about Obama's second-term agenda, because they say it's Romney who has failed to provide voters with details. They point to Romney's refusal to provide specifics about his tax plan or outline what he would replace the president's health care overhaul with if he makes good on his promise to repeal the federal law.
The Obama campaign has also stressed that it's hard to predict what Romney might do as president, since he has changed his positions on many issues.
The presidency is decided in state-by-state contests, not by a national popular vote. Forty-one of the 50 states are essentially already decided, and the candidates have taken the fight to the remaining nine, which include Ohio and Florida.
The president planned an extensive tour of battleground states following the debate, with events in Florida and Ohio on Tuesday, including a joint event with Vice President Joe Biden in Dayton, Ohio, before returning to the White House. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan planned to campaign Tuesday in Colorado.
On Wednesday, Obama was packing his schedule with around-the-clock campaigning in Davenport, Iowa; Denver; Los Angeles and Las Vegas, followed by events in Tampa, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; Chicago and Cleveland on Thursday.
New financial reports out this weekend show that Obama's campaign collected $181 million in September, compared with Romney's $170 million. Obama's fundraising tally is just short of the record $190 million the president pulled in four years ago last month.