Obama, Romney campaigns joust ahead of debate

Posted at 10/22/12 7:23 AM

FLORIDA - Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney's camps traded barbs Sunday on the eve of the final presidential debate, looking to exploit cracks in each other's foreign policy in the home stretch of a brutal election campaign.

With barely two weeks to go before Americans trek to the polls, the two men are diving into the nitty-gritty of international affairs and the latest overseas flashpoints such as Iran and Libya for their showdown in Boca Raton.

But the candidates are all too aware of the domestic pressures they face, with both planning to charge out onto the campaign trail straight after the debate to blitz the handful of battleground states likely to determine the November 6 election.

Romney foreign policy director Alex Wong told AFP that while foreign policy is vital and helps draw distinctions between Romney and the president, "everyone acknowledges that jobs and the economy, particularly after these four years of anemic recovery, is the top issue right now in the election."

Romney has spent the weekend in Boca Raton, Florida -- site of the debate. Aside from attending church and hitting the beach to give a pep talk to his staff who were playing American football against reporters, he has been holed up in debate prep with top aides.

Obama has secluded himself with his own team in Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

The race is virtually a dead heat, according to several polls, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, said it was widely understood that the race was boiling down to a few swing states.

"Everybody always knew this was a tight race and that it was going to come down to a few states. And I think that that's where we are today," Emanuel told ABC Sunday talk show "This Week."

Of those states, Florida, Ohio and Virginia are proving crucial, and both candidates are planning to barnstorm across those states in the coming days.

Obama won all three in 2008, but as a measure of the tightness of this year's contest, they are all up for grabs, with Florida leaning toward Romney, Virginia a tie, and Ohio leaning toward Obama, according to widely read poll averages by RealClearPolitics.

Despite the poll numbers favoring Obama in Ohio, which no Republican has won the White House without, "the trend is in our direction," Republican Senator Rob Portman told NBC's "Meet the Press," citing a shrinking Obama lead in the Midwestern state.

Portman and others, including Romney senior advisor Kevin Madden, hit on a theme that has swelled since the first debate on October 3 -- that Obama is merely defending his record rather than laying out a platform for a second term.

Madden said the Obama team has reduced its campaign to snarky one-liners instead of big ideas, and pointed to Obama recently accusing Romney of having "Romnesia," an attempt at branding his rival a flip-flopper who changed positions for political expediency.

"I don't think the message to voters right now ought to be playing Scrabble with your opponent's name when you have 23 million people struggling to find work," Madden snapped on CBS show "Face the Nation."

Florida Senator Marco Rubio piled on, saying it was "startling that the president, two weeks from election day, has completely given up on outlining a plan for governing this country for the next four years."

Obama's surrogates rushed to the president's defense, saying he was focused on improving training, education, infrastructure and research to maintain the US edge against countries whose economies were rapidly becoming more competitive.

And they insisted that a major element of Obama's strategy for Monday's debate will be to remind Americans of the importance of improving conditions at home in order to project strength abroad.

"After a decade of war, it's time to rebuild here at home. And the president has a plan to do that," Obama campaign deputy manager Stephanie Cutter told CBS.

Monday's showdown will draw the candidates out on testy international issues that have risen to the fore in recent weeks, notably Libya, where an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11 left four Americans dead, including ambassador Chris Stevens.

Republicans have seized on the administration's shifting account of what happened, and blamed the president for failing to adapt to a deteriorating security environment and then misleading the American people.

"I put that on the president of the United States," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox.

"This is a national security breakdown -- before, during and after the attacks."

Iran will also feature prominently, especially after a New York Times report on Saturday in which unnamed US officials said Iran was ready to talk one-on-one with Washington about its nuclear program. The story was denied by the White House and Iran.

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