GWEN IFILL: Voters get one last chance tonight to see the president and his Republican challenger meet face to face. They will go at it over foreign affairs, with 15 days until Election Day.
As the candidates prepare for their third and final debate in Florida tonight, fresh polls show the presidential race closer than ever.
President Obama and Governor Romney will be seated for tonight's discussion of foreign policy at LynnUniversity in Boca Raton.
Entering tonight's face-off, the two are now in a dead heat nationally. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows them tied at 47 percent among likely voters. Another Ohio survey, this one conducted by Quinnipiac University and CBS News, show the president leading 50 percent to 45 percent. He had been up 10 points in last month's survey.
The president also appears to be losing his edge over Romney on the question of who would be a better commander in chief. In the NBC poll, his incumbent's advantage has now narrowed from eight points to three.
With both candidates preparing for tonight's meeting, their running mates spent the day on the stump. Vice President Biden was in Ohio.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We went from losing 800,000 jobs a month when we took office to creating an average of 167,000 jobs a month for 30 months in a row. And they still say America is in decline.
Ladies and gentlemen, you know better than I. This is preaching to the choir. America is not in decline. Here's what it is. Romney and Ryan are in denial.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: And Republican Paul Ryan flew to Colorado.
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: Mitt Romney and I are not going to run away from these problems. We're going to run to these problems to solve these problems because they get out of our control. That's what leaders do.
We're not going to kick the can down the road. We're going to lead. And I will tell you what. We're not going to spend the next four years blaming other people for our problems. We're going to take responsibility.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: With 15 days left, both campaigns are burning through their considerable cash reserves.
The Democrats spent $111 million in September, mostly on ads, leaving the president and his party with $149 million cash on hand. Romney and the Republican National Committee, meanwhile, spent $55 million last month and had $183 million left at the end of September.
Here with us now to preview what to expect tonight are syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
If I had said to either of you six weeks ago that everything in this election would be so tight that it would depend on the third foreign policy debate, what would you have said to me?
DAVID BROOKS: Surprise, and advantage Obama.
Now, I should say I think the underlying tenor of the past week has been shifting toward Romney. I think there's been a slight momentum shift toward the challenger over the last week. And that puts a little more pressure on Obama.
Nonetheless, I do think this is his natural home turf. He's thought about foreign policy a lot more than Mitt Romney. I think it's his chance to really deliver a serious blow.
For Mitt Romney, the idea I think for tonight is just to come out with a tie, just kind of look presidential. Don't scare anybody. Just, you know -- he has much lower ambitions, I think.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Mark?
Is it more important for whoever wins this debate tonight to come out with a detailed grasp of foreign policy or just look like a president?
MARK SHIELDS: I think first of all, Gwen, there's competing theories on what President Obama should do.
One argument is that you take the question and you just turn it right back to domestic, that for America to be strong in the world, we have to have a strong, vibrant economy at home and a growing economy and better education. And that's what I'm about.
The second is to trump Mitt Romney's very limited credentials and his stumbles, quite frankly, whether it's Russia or Great Britain and his own trips abroad and try to exploit that.
But what's -- David is right.
The underlying tenor of this campaign, the internals, if you would, of the polls, have been moving in Romney's direction. I mean, he's now seen as better on the economy. He's now seen as better on the jobs. All these numbers are up in that Wall Street Journal/NBC poll you just mentioned before the first debate.
I would say right now the president has enormous responsibility tonight.
And that is, it's the Goldilocks factor. He was too cool in the first debate. He may have been a little too hot in the second debate. I think he's just got to strike it right here tonight. And I think that is the key for him.
GWEN IFILL: They're going to be seated at a table much like we are, so that might be -- like, I can reach out and touch you if I wanted to, which probably might not be a good idea in the campaign -- at the debate tonight.
But does it matter that they talk about America's longest war, Afghanistan, or talk about Iran and whether we will negotiate, and talk about these granular foreign policy issues which are on the table?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it's very Middle East- centric, I think a too un-Europe centric, a little too un-China centric for my taste, very Middle East to AfPak centric.
I still think the president has to go -- he has chosen for reasons which mystify me a campaign centering on disqualifying his opponent. I think he should have done a lot more positive about his own agenda, but he made this call.
I think if the momentum is shifting toward Romney, he has to double down on that. He has to say, this guy is really dangerous. He's really contradicting himself.
And even though they are sitting down in a less combative format, I do think he has to remind people, we really can't trust Romney, because that's the strategy they have chosen in this race. I think it's probably a little too late to change it.
MARK SHIELDS: I think Romney -- the mystery to me is, he's really relied upon I would say the discredited neocon position that George Bush listened to, which really resulted in the Republican repudiation in 2006.
That wasn't a defeat based upon the economy in 2006. It was America's dissatisfaction and really anger with that foreign of Bush's in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
And I think the more he sounds like maybe we ought to get tough with Iran or even think about going in, I think it puts him in a position where it strengthens the president as the grownup.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that, too. I think people don't want somebody who is going to be super aggressive, maybe threatening wars. They know that foreign policy challenges are filled with uncertainty these days. There's no really good option in most problems.
They want to show somebody who can show a little discretion. And Romney would be making an error to be super, super hawkish.
GWEN IFILL: First debate, we said Romney needed a second look. Second debate, we said Obama needed a second look.
And now we're in a third debate. Who needs the second or third look the most tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: The president does.
And I think it was said to me this weekend by a very wise person that we will look back on the first debate of 2012 the same way we looked back at John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, that that established Richard Nixon as the equal of -- Jack Kennedy as the equal of Richard Nixon, which he hadn't been. Nixon had been more experienced.
The first debate, the implications of it, fallout from it remain profound and real and have shaped this race.
DAVID BROOKS: And then Vice President Biden, I think, won that -- their debate. I think Obama won this last debate.
And so far, if there's an effect in the polls, it hasn't been visible, to me at least. That first debate had a huge effect, the last two not so much.
GWEN IFILL: So, who they speaking to tonight? Are they speaking to the undecided women in suburban Columbus? Are they speaking to the nation at large? Who counts tonight?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, they're speaking -- that's the great thing about it. You're speaking to everybody at the same time.
The president's problem is -- one of his problems is that he has an advantage, a lead of five points in that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll among registered voters.
But they're tied among those most likely to vote. It's a problem of excitement, of generation, of convincing his people that their vote matters, that this is an important election, that he's going to make a difference and really to gin them up.
DAVID BROOKS: And I'm fed up with microtargeting. I think they have spent way too much time microtargeting.
There's been a loss of vision for both candidates.
And so if I were counseling the two guys, I would say, don't worry about the undecided voter in Columbus. Just speak your mind and give people a sense of who you are.
MARK SHIELDS: But you have got to raise the stakes of this race, I think, in an inspiring sense.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be watching to see whether they do any of what you say tonight.
GWEN IFILL: David Brooks, Mark Shields...
MARK SHIELDS: If they're smart, they won't.
GWEN IFILL: ... thank you so much.
Mark and David will be back with us for the PBS NewsHour debate special at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
And, online, our live stream will offer analysis and samples of the NewsHour's extensive reporting on foreign affairs. Also, our live blog will provide reaction from both sides on what's said on the stage in Florida tonight.