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A Look Ahead To Monday's Presidential Debate


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There are just over two weeks to go until Election Day and the race between President Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney has turned into a very close matchup. With early voting well underway, there are only a few chances left for each candidate to make his case to the sliver of voters who are still making up their minds.

Tomorrow night's debate on foreign policy is one of those opportunities. Iran nuclear policy is likely to come up, especially in light of a recent New York Times report that says Iran has agreed to one-on-one talks with the U.S., although the White House is denying that story.

For more, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with me now. Mara, welcome.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So let's start with Iran. This New York Times piece is quoting a U.S. official, saying that Iran has agreed to these talks. But a White House spokesman is denying all of this. How might this story affect what we could see from the candidates at the debate tomorrow night?

LIASSON: Well, I'm sure it will come up. The White House issued a statement that they said that they have not agreed to one-on-one talks or any meetings after the American elections. But they have said all along they would be prepared to meet bilaterally with Iran. So I'm sure that Romney will be asked if he would continue that policy. He might argue it's a sign of weakness to talk to Iran.

President Obama, I think, will say that sanctions are working. That's why Iran might be interested in talking, but he's not going to let up on the pressure.

MARTIN: OK, setting aside Iran, what does each side need to accomplish tomorrow night? Let's start with Romney.

LIASSON: Well, the president's edge in the polls on foreign policy has been shrinking. So Romney really needs to take advantage of that. He also gets a kind of a redo on the Libya question that he botched in the last debate, when he'd gone into a kind of semantic argument about what exactly the president said. I think he also gets a chance to say what he would do differently in foreign-policy, on a whole range of issues, other than merely criticize the president.

Mr. Obama will get a chance to remind voters why they had previously given him such high marks on foreign policy; the killing of Osama bin Laden, the end of the Iraq War, the eventual drawdown in Afghanistan. And also, he has a chance to give a better explanation of the shifting stories from the administration on Libya.

You know, it's interesting. The larger goals for both of these candidates in this debate are actually not about foreign policy. They're about Romney trying to close the edge with women. They're about the president trying to finally offer a rationale and an agenda for a second term. And it will be interesting to see how they use a foreign policy debate to segueway into those issues.

MARTIN: And remind us, Mara, just how tight the race is, and where the main battlegrounds are still in play.

LIASSON: Well, the race is super tight. It's a dead heat. Whatever edge is within the margin of error, there certainly was a bounce for Romney from his successful debate in Denver. He changed the trajectory of the race. We haven't seen anywhere near as big an advantage for the president after the debate in Long Island. Maybe he got a bounce of maybe a half or one point.

The battlegrounds are still the same. You can see where the candidates are traveling: Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado. Then I would say Nevada and New Hampshire and Virginia. North Carolina probably is going into the Romney column. The Republicans are also trying very hard to turn something - maybe Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan - to their side so they can make up for a loss in Ohio if it comes down to that. But the point is both candidates have so much money, they don't have to pull out of any state.

MARTIN: And it's clear to you that both campaigns still have a pathway through the electoral map.

LIASSON: Well, they both have a pathway. I would say Romney's path is narrower. He has to win Virginia, Florida and Ohio. Unless he can, as I said, figure some other state to swap out for Ohio. The president does still have a few more paths to 270 electoral votes. He does not have to win Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.