(BOCA RATON, Fla.) — President Obama was on the offensive during the third and final presidential debate Monday night, hitting Mitt Romney for shifting on foreign policy positions and pointedly telling Romney, “Every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong.”
Romney agreed with Obama during much of the debate that concentrated on foreign policy, but had sharp words for the president on the Middle East, saying the president “wasted these four years” by failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program and allowing the Middle East to descend into “tumult.”
He congratulated Obama on tracking and killing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but added, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
The president at one point defended his tenure, saying flatly, “America is stronger now than when I came into office.”
See the full debate transcript HERE.
Meeting at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the two candidates sat at a table next to each other and across from moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, an arrangement that allowed for less of the dramatic finger pointing and circling that made for fireworks in last week’s matchup in New York.
There were, however, plenty of zingers.
When Romney accused the president of cutting back on military spending by noting the U.S. Navy had fewer ships today than in World War I, Obama shot back: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”
He also said in an almost derisive tone, “We also have things called aircraft carriers that planes land on and submarines that go under water.”
Schieffer said Monday night’s debates comes on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s address to the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis when the U.S. and Russia were on the verge of nuclear war. It also took place just over a month since Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Libya, killing four, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. that Iran is less than a year away from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Obama, who has made the killing of bin Laden a cornerstone of his campaign, attacked Romney for failing to recognize the threat al Qaeda continues to present to the peace and security of the United States.
“Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al Qaeda is a threat because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia….The 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama sniped.
Romney responded with his own venom, reminding the president he was caught late last year on an open mic telling the Russians he would have more flexibility following the election.
“Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election,” Romney said. He said that Putin would face “more backbone.”
Romney said, as he did in the earlier debates, that Obama began his administration by going on an “apology tour” to Arab countries. This time, Obama was ready for him.
“Nothing Gov. Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign,” the president said.
But for much of the debate Romney struck a softer tone Monday night than he has in recent weeks, both in his demeanor and the policies which he was advocating. Romney, who scored points for being aggressive in the first debate, and advocated a hawkish foreign policy in the first months of the campaign, Monday said America should spread its influence in the world not through its military but through soft-power diplomatic solutions.
“We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan,” Romney said, adding that investment in Muslim countries would help stem the rise of Islamic extremism.
The two men at times seemed to agree as much they disagreed. Both said they would stand with Israel if it were attacked by Iran, and both say they will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
President Obama called the restive civil war in Syria “heartbreaking,” but said the U.S. should not send troops into the conflagration. Romney essentially agreed, but said the U.S. should send weapons to the insurgents.
Obama noted that he had ended the war in Iraq and was scaling back troop deployments in Afghanistan.
“After a decade of war we have to do some nation building here at home,” he said.
Locked in a virtual dead heat, the candidates at times turned to the domestic issues — particularly the economy and jobs — they believe both distinguish them from each other and about which voters are more worried.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com columnist
Stephan Rockefeller, EastIdahoNews.com