When President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face off on Monday in their third and final debate, it will be the Republican challenger’s last best chance to recover from his botched “Libya moment” and exploit vulnerabilities in his opponent’s foreign policy record.
But Romney has an uphill struggle to make his case against Obama, who will be buoyed by the advantages of incumbency as well as polls showing him with an edge - though a shrinking one - on the question of who is more trusted in global affairs.
This week’s debate in Boca Raton, Florida, coming just 15 days before the election and devoted entirely to foreign policy, could be the riskiest of the three nationally televised showdowns for Romney, largely because of his inexperience and recent blunders on the world stage.
Romney’s missteps in criticizing Obama’s handling of a deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi - the focus of a vividly testy exchange in the previous debate - have complicated his broader strategy of trying to cast the president as a weak steward of American power abroad.
Deprived of one of his most potent lines of attack, expect Romney to instead focus more of his criticism on Obama’s policies toward Iran, Israel, Syria, China, Afghanistan and Russia.
“Obama has a record, and Romney doesn’t, so he can just cherry-pick the arguments,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department policy planner now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “But that doesn’t mean any of it will stick.”
Romney’s aides hope that chipping away at Obama’s credibility on foreign policy and national security - areas the White House once saw as largely immune from Republican attack - can help put him over the top with undecided voters in the final weeks of a White House race still too close to call.
Obama’s policies have faced setbacks recently, from challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East to a string of attacks on U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan by the Afghan troops they are supposed to be training.
A report in The New York Times that the Obama administration has agreed in principle with Iran to hold one-on-one talks over Tehran’s nuclear program could provide a fresh avenue for Romney to cast Obama as too willing to accommodate.
Republican Senator Rob Portman, Romney’s sparring partner in mock debates ahead of Monday night, warned Obama against sidelining U.S. allies in the diplomatic front against Iran.