Foreign policy proved to be a subject that kept the tone mostly substantive tonight in the third and final debate between President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney before the Nov. 6 election.
While the president was the more aggressive of the two, sometimes interrupting his opponent and several times forcefully challenging things that Romney said, for the most part the discussion was tough but civil. And on several issues — most notably how to handle the situation in Syria and the use of drones in Pakistan — the two men agreed on as much as or more than they disagreed.
It appeared at times, NPR's Ari Shapiro said afterward, that Obama's strategy was to be somewhat condescending in a bid to paint Romney as inexperienced on foreign policy.
And Romney's strategy, said NPR's Ron Elving, seemed to be to "play for a draw." Given the Republican challenger's recent rise in polls, he may have been as focused on not making mistakes as on scoring points.
Romney also, through the evening, tried to turn the discussion toward whether the Obama administration's domestic policies — most notably on the economy — have hurt the nation both at home and abroad.
The two men faced off on a stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. With polls still showing a tight race and just two weeks to go before Election Day, both were looking at tonight's debate as one of their last, best chances to woo voters.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News was the moderator.
As we did during the two previous debates and the one between Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, we live blogged. Meanwhile, our colleague Frank James hosted a live chat.
Obama goes first at the close. He tells viewers that they've now had "three debates, months of campaigning and way too many TV commercials."
The president makes the case that since he's been in office there has been "real progress digging our way out of policies" that led to "two prolonged wars, record deficits and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
While he wants to take the nation forward, Obama says, Romney's policies "won't create jobs, won't reduce our deficits, but will make sure folks at the top don't have to play by the same rules" as everyone else.
Romney says he's optimistic about the future, "excited by our prospects" and wants to see a peaceful, safer world. He argues that Obama's policies would take the nation on a path to "$20 trillion in debt, heading toward Greece." Romney promises again to put forward policies that produce 12 million jobs.
At the end, the Republican strikes a tone that may remind some of Democratic President John Kennedy. "It's our turn to take that torch" carried by earlier generations, he says.
Romney makes the case that China needs to be held accountable for holding down its currency and "stealing our intellectual property." Obama uses this part of the discussion to repeat something he's said many times, that Romney is familiar with the issue of jobs being shipped overseas "because you've invested in companies that shipped overseas."
"Attacking me is not talking about an agenda for getting more trade and jobs," Romney responds.
The discussion veers to the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, which gives Obama the opening to say again that Romney wanted to let them go bankrupt without any government assistance. Romney calls that the "height of silliness." Obama insists that Romney is wrong. They challenge each other to "look it up." PolitiFact, by the way, has called the allegation that Romney wanted to let the auto makers go bankrupt "half true."
Asked about the use of drones to go after suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Romney says "I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people that pose any threat to us." Then he says Obama was "right to up the usage of that technology." But Romney adds that the nation has to "do more than just going after leaders and killing bad guys." And he ends by saying that al-Qaida is not on the run.
Obama responds that al-Qaida is "much weaker than it was when I took office."
Romney repeats a charge he's made many times — that the president went on an "apology tour" at the start of his term in office. "You skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region," Romney says of Obama's trip, which included visits to Egypt and other nations.
And during the trip, Romney adds, Obama said America had sometimes dictated to other nations. "America has not dictated to other nations," Romney says with some of the most passion he's shown tonight. "We have freed other nations from dictators." (ALERT; a line everybody [will] remember tomorrow.)
Obama points out that fact checkers have debunked Romney's "apology tour" charge (PolitiFact gave Romney its harshest "pants on fire" rating for that claim).
And Obama says "if we're going to talk about trips we've taken," that he'd like to talk about his first trip as a foreign candidate — to visit U.S. troops. And, he says, when he went to Israel as a candidate, "I didn't take fundraisers." That's a direct shot at a trip Romney took this year. (ALERT)
Turning to Iran, Romney talks of tightening sanctions and says that "I would make sure [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is indicted out of the Genocide Convention" for his threats aimed at Israel.
Asked how he would balance the budget, Romney talks again (as in previous debates) about getting rid of Obamacare and giving Medicaid to the states to run. But he doesn't want to cut all spending. He uses his response to criticize the president on military spending, saying "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917" and that the Air Force is smaller than at any time since its founding in 1947.
Obama says Romney isn't up to speed on current military affairs. "We also have fewer horses and bayonets," he says (ALERT). "We have these things called aircraft carriers. ... We have submarines."
Military spending isn't "a game of Battleship," Obama adds.
Romney ends the segment on the Middle East by saying that "nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago."
That gives Schieffer the cue to move to the next segment — what is America's role in the world?
Romney begins by talking about promoting freedom, democracy and human dignity and then turns his response into a discussion of the U.S. economy — which he says has not been growing as strongly as it should. As he ends his response, though, he returns to foreign policy by saying that it was "an enormous mistake" for the Obama administration to "stay silent" when Iranians were protesting their presidential election in 2009.
Obama ticks off the reasons why he believes the nation "is stronger now than when I came into office." They include the end of the war in Iraq and the refocusing of attention on Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaida. The nation, he argues, has "never been stronger."
Style note: As NPR's Ron Elving predicted before the debate, the mere fact that the men are seated beside each other seems to have made for less aggressive attitudes from both than in the two previous debates. And when each man is not talking, he's been looking straight at his opponent — both of them trying to show they're listening (after the first debate, Obama was roundly criticized for looking down and not looking like he was paying close attention).
Romney criticizes Obama for first "saying we'll let the U.N. deal with it ... then the Russians. ... We should be playing the leadership role there."
Obama makes the case that "we are playing a leadership role." He says Romney "doesn't have different ideas ... because we're doing exactly what we should be doing" by trying to assist the opposition, but without being involved militarily.
Both men basically say the U.S. needs to assist the opposition to President Bashar Assad but not give the wrong people weapons that could later be used against the U.S. or its allies.
Schieffer starts by asking about the "challenge of a changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism" and notes that Romney has said Obama's foreign policy is "unraveling."
Romney's message: While "I congratulate [Obama] on taking out Osama bin Laden ... we can't kill our way out of this mess."
To which Obama responds that during his term, "we ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed [Americans] on 9/11" and "decimated" al-Qaida's core leadership.
"Your strategy," he says to Romney, "has been all over the map."
Romney says his strategy would be to "go after the bad guys and make sure we do our very best to interrupt them and kill them."
After criticizing Romney for saying Russia is an enemy, Obama comes back with a point he's made often and a line about a variety of Romney's policies: "You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s ... the social policies of the 1950s and economic policies of the 1920s." (Our first ALERT?)
Romney comes back to say that he believes Russia is a geopolitical rival.
Debate Commission Co-Chairmen Frank Fahrenkopf (a Republican) and Mike McCurry (a Democrat) are telling the audience in the hall the same thing they've told those at the other debates: no cheering, no booing and no cellphones. Basically, they remind the crowd that 60 million or so Americans are watching and they want to hear the candidates, not the audience.
Fahrenkopf also got a laugh from the crowd by holding up a T-shirt that Lynn students created. On one side, it has the logo of the debate. On the other, it says "We never heard of you either." It's a bit of self-deprecating humor.
Before last week's debate, we noted that Real Clear Politics' chart that collects the results of many national polls had Romney leading by 0.4 of a percentage point. This week, Romney is still ahead by that narrow margin — 47.6 percent to Obama's 47.2 percent.
Because Romney and Obama will be sitting together at a table, they'll be "in each other's space," NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving says. He tells our Newscast Desk that the physical closeness may create "more of a 'come let us reason together' atmosphere" than that of the their first two debates, when both men were standing.
While "the first debates between the presidential candidates each drew more than 60 million viewers," there's a good chance that tonight's will have a smaller audience, NPR's Scott Horsley tells our Newscast Desk.
That's in part because of tonight's Game 7 in the National League Championship Series between baseball's St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants (8 p.m. ET on Fox) and Monday Night Football on ESPN (8:30 p.m. ET; Detroit Lions vs. the Chicago Bears).
But as Scott adds, "this is the candidates' last big opportunity to address a national TV audience before turning their attention to a handful of battleground states for the final two weeks of campaigning."
As we said earlier, the focus tonight is foreign policy. Schieffer plans six 15-minute segments. According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, they will be on:
-- "America's role in the world."
-- "Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan."
-- "Red lines — Israel and Iran."
-- Two segments on "the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism."
-- "The rise of China and tomorrow's world."
The candidates will be seated at a table with Schieffer. Each segment will begin with a question from the newsman, followed by two-minute (it's hoped) responses from each contender. Then Schieffer will try to facilitate a discussion.
Thanks to two coin tosses, Romney will get the first question and response and will make the last closing statement.
The first Obama-Romney debate, on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, shook up the campaign. Romney had what polls show was a strong performance, while Obama was judged to have "lost" the faceoff. The next week, Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan had their one and only debate. Biden was aggressive. Ryan, polls indicate, held his own.
Last week, during their town hall-style debate at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island, Obama was much more aggressive than he had been in Denver — challenging Romney's statements throughout the evening. But the Republican nominee wasn't shy about pushing back. "At times," as we wrote last Tuesday night, "the two came close enough to touch each other — though they did not — as they invaded each other's personal space and fired off attack lines."
Throughout the debates, as we've reported, both tickets' candidates have stretched some truths, according to nonpartisan fact checkers.