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Published: Monday, 10/22/2012

SETTING THE STAGE

Candidates’ final debate to focus on foreign policy

Obama, Romney surrogates hit the talk shows

BY JAMES O’TOOLE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
A worker adjusts the backdrop on stage in preparation for Monday's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Sunday, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. A worker adjusts the backdrop on stage in preparation for Monday's presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Sunday, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
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BOCA RATON, Fla. — A campaign dominated by the economy heads into its stretch run with a final debate focused on foreign policy, an issue that was supposed to be an administration strong point, but one that the Romney campaign has battled to turn against President Obama.

Sunday’s talk shows offered possible previews of today’s exchanges. While President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were preoccupied with final preparations for their third face-off, their surrogates traded pointed charges on controversies abroad, notably Libya and Iran.

Two Romney allies, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), continued to press the GOP attacks on the administration’s performance and explanations of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that brought the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.

Mr. Graham called the events “a case study of a breakdown of national security,” in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. Mr. Rubio repeated the GOP critique that the President had allowed Iran to buy time for its nuclear program with ineffective sanctions.

“I think [Mr. Romney is] very cognizant of the fact that Iran has used negotiations in the past to buy themselves time,” Mr. Rubio said on Meet the Press. “I think under a President Romney, you would not have to haggle with the White House about sanctions.”

Obama aides defended the administration, contending that the criticisms distorted the facts surrounding the Benghazi attacks, as well as the protracted confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) charged that Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) had been reckless in releasing internal U.S. documents on the Libya situation that included the names of Libyans working with the United States.

“Darrell Issa does a document dump on his Web site with sensitive information about those in Libya who are helping keep America safe,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “I mean, it shows the lengths many will go to politicize this tragic situation.”

Obama strategist David Axelrod also bristled at the attacks. “The way they’ve handled this issue is disgraceful,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

He denied Republican suggestions of political calculation in the administration’s descriptions of the episode. The initial accounts cited anger at an anti-Muslim video that had sparked demonstrations in Cairo at about the same time. Later, the administration said more complete intelligence showed that the deadly clash was the result of a planned attack by a terrorist group.

Mr. Romney faced criticism at the time for what critics saw as a rush to score points from the attacks. He had one of his weaker moments in the last debate, at Hofstra University, when he contended incorrectly that Mr. Obama had not ascribed the event to terrorism. While the administration’s descriptions of the attack did shift over time, the President, as was pointed out at Hofstra, did refer to it as an act of terrorism in his first statement on the deaths.

The bedrock of Mr. Romney’s campaign is his indictment of the President’s response to a lagging economy and his contention that his business acumen better equips him to reinvigorate the country’s job growth.

But that line of attack has always existed alongside his contention that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy had displayed weakness. The title of Mr. Romney’s campaign book, No Apologies, refers to his oft-repeated contention that Mr. Obama had opened his administration with an “apology tour” for U.S. actions in the past that had invited confrontation from foreign rivals. While independent fact-checkers have said that Mr. Romney’s characterizations of a variety of Obama statements as apologies are inaccurate, Mr. Romney has been undeterred.

He also has questioned the President’s response to the civil strife in Syria and contended repeatedly that Mr. Obama has been insufficiently supportive of Israel and has jeopardized its security by not being more forceful against Iran.

Mr. Obama has rejected all of those charges, arguing that he has engineered tough sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Despite his conspicuously strained relationship with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, he maintains that his administration has been unstinting in its support for its Mideast partner.

The Democrat maintains that the strength of his foreign policy is demonstrated by his ability to end the war in Iraq and set a timetable for substantial withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In a perhaps unfortunate coincidence for the Romney campaign, the debate, at Lynn University, takes place in the same town where a pirated videotape was recorded showing the Republican’s dismissive statement about the “47 percent” of Americans who he cited as content to be dependent on government.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.

Contact James O’Toole at: jotoole@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1562.



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