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Final Debate Aims Focus On Foreign Policy


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. There are only two more weeks before the presidential election and just one more debate, tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. The subject is foreign policy. It's not the central issue of the election, but topics such as Syria, Libya, Iran and China have been subjects of fierce debate. NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, is in Florida to cover the debate and she joins me now.

And Mara, let's start with the basics. First of all, a little about the format of tonight's debate.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, tonight's debate is going to be split into six 15-minute segments. It's moderated by CBS' Bob Schieffer. He's going to ask the question, each candidate gets two minutes. The topics are America's role in the world, the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan; a segment on red lines, vis-a-vis Iran and Israel; another one on the Arab Spring in the Middle East; the changing face of terrorism; and the rise of China.

The candidates are going to be seated at a table. That's going to make it a little bit harder for the aggressive physicality that you saw in the debate in Long Island. They're not gonna really be able to circle each other and bare their teeth as much when they're seated next to each other. Also, the subject matter, foreign policy, really requires a little more gravitas and I think that will tamp down some of the aggressiveness.

BLOCK: And in that list of topics that you mentioned, a lot of flashpoints. What would you expect the biggest points of contention to be tonight?

LIASSON: I think Libya will be a very big point of contention. Governor Romney gets a do-over in effect. He's tried twice to make the argument that the president has mishandled Libya. First, he focused on a press release that he said showed the administration was sympathizing with the attackers. Then, he mischaracterized what the president said, whether he called it an act of terror.

But this time he'll get to explain what his criticism is. The president will be asked to explain the confusion about Libya, why the administration gave so many conflicting reports about just what happened there.

BLOCK: And this close to the election, Mara, two weeks away, why don't you talk a bit about what both candidates need to accomplish tonight.

LIASSON: Well, Governor Romney, who has the momentum right now, wants to be seen as a credible commander in chief. And he's going to try to keep chipping away at what is really a diminishing advantage for the president. The president was seen as much stronger on foreign policy. Now, his advantage has shrunk and some polls show the two men even on this issue. I think you'll hear Governor Romney talking about leading from behind and apologizing for America, two things he's says the president has done and he would never do.

President Obama, for his part, will try to paint the governor as a warmonger. I think that's an argument that's been very effective with women voters who are the target demographic for both candidates right now. I think he'll say what would Governor Romney do other than what we have already done except for go to war? I think for both men, the big challenge tonight is how to link the discussion of foreign policy to the issues that voters really care about and that's domestic policy and the economy.

BLOCK: And Mara, you mentioned the momentum behind Governor Romney. There have been a number of polls that indicate a narrowing margin, that this race is effectively a dead heat.

LIASSON: It certainly is. The debates changed the trajectory of the race. After the first debate, Romney really got some momentum. The Romney camp thinks that that was a tipping point, the tipping point they were looking for. The president thinks his performance at the second debate brought things more or less back to where they were before the Denver debate, very close. But they believe they have an advantage in the Electoral College.

The polls have been volatile and contradictory. We have two today about Ohio. One, Suffolk University, shows a tie and the other, Quinnipiac, shows a five-point lead for the president. So, it does all come down to turnout. That sounds like a cliche, but it's really what it is. And people are beginning to talk about that nightmare scenario where there is a split between - a possible split between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote.

BLOCK: Okay. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Mara Liasson, talking with us from Boca Raton, Florida, where the final presidential debate starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern this evening. You can hear live coverage on many NPR stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.