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Obama, Romney Clash in Foreign Policy Finale

On Stage

President Obama and Mitt Romney participate in their third debate Monday night. Photo by Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post.

The Morning Line

The 2012 debate season is officially in the books following Monday night’s faceoff between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

The encounter at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., was marked by repeated clashes between the two candidates over foreign affairs and domestic concerns, with Mr. Obama taking a more aggressive approach while Romney appeared more guarded for much of the evening.

President Obama charged that Romney had failed to offer a clear and consistent vision for U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

“What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map,” the president said. “And unfortunately, that’s the kind of opinions that you’ve offered throughout this campaign, and it is not a recipe for American strength or keeping America safe over the long term.”

Romney argued that the president’s negative attacks reflected the lack of a plan for how to deal with the region.

“We’re talking about the Middle East and how to help the Middle East reject the kind of terrorism we’re seeing and the rising tide of tumult…and confusion,” Romney said. “And attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence.”

The debate also featured numerous points of agreement between the two rivals, such as the 2014 timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan and the increased use of drone strikes to target terrorists.

But more often than not, the president and Romney sought to highlight their differences, seeking any advantage in a tightly fought campaign with just two weeks left until Election Day.

Romney said it was “unacceptable” that the “Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917.” In response, Mr. Obama mocked Romney for not understanding modern military capabilities.

“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships.”

Romney accused the president of weakening the position of the United States on the international stage by embarking on an “apology tour” to the Middle East and “criticizing America.”

Mr. Obama shot back that the “apology” line was “probably the biggest whopper” told during the campaign, noting that fact-checkers and reporters had dismissed the charge.

Despite the stated foreign policy focus, the meeting afforded both men the opportunity to pivot to domestic policy, from education to the auto bailout. Still, the contenders mentioned 19 countries, by Talking Points Memo’s count, with the West African nation of Mali getting a lot of national exposure.

How did the the debate play across the country? Here’s a collection of headlines from the major dailies and some battleground state newspapers:

Snap polls taken after the debate mostly gave the edge to President Obama.

A CNN survey of 448 registered voters found registered voters saying that Mr. Obama performed better, 48 percent to 40 percent.

CBS’ look at 500 uncommitted voters was more pronounced for the president, with 53 percent of them saying he won and just 23 percent saying it was Romney’s victory. In that poll, 24 percent said it was a tie.

An automated survey of 11 battleground states from the left leaning Public Policy Polling gave the victory to the president, 53 percent to 42 percent. The poll, conducted on behalf of Americans United for Change, showed Mr. Obama winning every demographic group.

Team NewsHour’s in-depth coverage Monday night included Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff co-anchoring the PBS election special, post-game analysis from columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks and a look at how the campaigns viewed the evening by NPR’s Ari Shapiro and Scott Horsley.

David gave the debate a “teense” more to Romney, while Mark gave the president props for what he said was a night of “making a strong case against Mitt Romney.”

Jeffrey Brown also spoke with Christina and presidential historian Michael Beschloss to see how the encounter played out over social media and how it compared to debates past.

Michael said President Obama faced the same problems Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush encountered trying to disqualify their rivals as amateurs on foreign policy. “Couldn’t quite do it,” he said. “And in Romney’s case, I think he felt that if he got through 90 minutes without — while holding his own, without doing himself any harm, it is sort of a tacit way of essentially gaining the upper hand in this debate.”

Christina noted that the domestic policy talk fared best with the focus group of Walmart moms we were tracking and that with each side doing a lot of debate-time spin, it ended up looking more like a tie.

Watch the post-debate analysis here or below:

You can also watch the debate in full here or below.

The debate traveled far and wide on social media, generating 6.5 million tweets per minute, with phrases like the president’s “We also have fewer horses and bayonets” producing the most interest on Twitter — at 105,767 tweets per minute. Next up was moderator Bob Schieffer’s declaration as things wrapped up, “I think we all love teachers.”

President Obama’s joke that Romney’s foreign policy was three decades behind the times didn’t make the top 10, but it inspired memes nonetheless. And what debate would be complete without a new ridiculous Tumblr page.

This photo making the rounds on Facebook sums up the silly themes surfacing during the three main debates.

Christina and foreign affairs reporter-producer P.J. Tobia answered questions from Twitter and Facebook in our NewsHour After Hours livestream. Watch that here or below.

Video streaming by Ustream.

Before the debate, Christina chatted with Gwen, Judy and Margaret Warner about expectations for the evening. Watch those chats here and here.

The NewsHour’s other coverage included reporter-producer Tiffany Mullon’s conversation with students in Boca Raton, a take from each side with consultants Mo Elleithee, a Democrat, and Rick Davis, a Republican, weighing in, and some tips from student debaters.

The NewsHour’s HatCam was back out in the field Monday, this time being used by politics production assistant Allie Morris and desk assistants Jessica Fink and Geoffrey Lou Guray, who gauged reaction at a debate watch party at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium.


Geoffrey and Jessica got a wide range of responses when they asked students about topics they were hoping to hear. “I hope that they’ll address the Millennium Development Goals for the U.N., and global poverty reduction, said freshman Zach Komes, a first-time voter and Obama supporter. Senior Michelle Marshall, also an Obama supporter, went into the debate “hoping that the discussions on foreign policy expand beyond the Middle East.” She added, “I’d like to see some concentration and discussion on the Western Hemisphere and relations with Latin America.”

Keep an eye on The Rundown for more material from the NewsHour’s visit to George Washington University.


If Florida is a swing state, then the I-4 corridor is its swingingest part. Judy traveled up and down the interstate this weekend as the candidates prepared for Monday night’s debate in Boca Raton.

Both campaigns have focused their pitch on young voters, women and Hispanics. But with just two weeks to go, the ground game in Florida is for turnout and the buzzword is “vote.”

Ann Romney joins other women in Saturday’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event, walking along Orlando’s Orange Avenue in a sea of pink bras, pink socks and pink feather boas. Photo by Judy Woodruff/PBS NewsHour.

Watch Judy’s report here or below:


Ahead of the debate, Jeffrey Brown examined how foreign policy is getting renewed attention after the attacks in Benghazi, Libya. He spoke with columnists David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer. They noted that many of the candidates’ positions are similar on paper.

Watch the discussion here or below:


The NewsHour devoted more than 11 minutes to the legacy of George McGovern on Monday, beginning with a rich obituary produced by Morgan Till. It included archival footage of McGovern’s NewsHour conversation with Barry Goldwater about what it means to be a liberal and a conservative.

Judy then talked with longtime Democratic politician Gary Hart about his recollection of the progressive hero and former presidential nominee. Hart hailed McGovern as more than an anti-war icon, calling him someone who pushed the issues no one else wanted to talk about, from poverty to equality.

Watch here or below.

Judy also asked Hart about the debate.


Tuesday’s tidbit from NewsHour partner Face the Facts USA looks at the highway system.

The nonpartisan organization found that road congestion comes with a hefty price tag: “[I]t will cost $688 billion in the next 16 years to repair and upgrade the Interstates to handle anticipated traffic and meet new safety and environmental standards. That’s more than five times their original construction cost.”


  • Team Obama released a to-the-camera television spot set to air in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado. The president opens the ad with, “There’s just no quit in America.” He urges voters to read his plan. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve made real progress,” he says. The spot closes with him saying it is an “honor to be your president.” Watch.
  • Post-debate, Team Romney releases a foreign policy-focused ad titled “Apology Tour.” “After taking office, President Obama went on an apology tour around the world. He even said that America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America doesn’t dictate to other nations; we have freed other nations from dictators,” the campaign said in its press release Tuesday.
  • Don’t miss Frontline’s upcoming look at big money in politics. The NewsHour will air portions of these stories Monday and Tuesday.
  • Associated Press stalwart Bob Lewis explains Virginia’s changing demographics.
  • The Roanoke Times’ Mason Adams traveled to coal country in southwestern Virginia to see how energy policy has an effect on some swing state voters. Hint: Grundy, Va., isn’t home to the undecideds.
  • Slate explores one possible outcome of this close race: What happens if there’s an electoral college tie.
  • Yahoo News’ Chris Wilson tore through thousands of pages of data to discover the TV programs during which the campaigns’ have run the most ads.
  • Roll Call’s Kate Ackley finds that K Street lobbyists have decamped to the campaign trail for the final stretch.
  • Paging Sasha Issenberg.
  • Tuesday night at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Gwen and Judy will speak with CNN’s Candy Crowley about what it’s like being a woman in the media business. You can watch the livestream.
  • Christina participated in a Huff Post Live panel to discuss young voters.
  • Twitter expanded its election offerings.



  • The Associated Press’ Alan Fram looks at the Senate state of play: “The party that runs the Senate next year may be decided by how well President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney do in toss-up states like Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, where ballots feature parallel Senate races about as tight as the presidential contest.”
  • Former NewsHour foreign affairs editor Michael Mosettig recalled in a lively blog post what it was like covering the Cuban missile crisis five decades ago.
  • Politico’s Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer write that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sparked murmurs about her future by delaying House Democratic leadership elections until after Thanksgiving.
  • Speaking of Pelosi, she stopped by NPR’s comedic news quiz “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” this weekend as a guest quizee.
  • On the road in Ohio, Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz talks to voters who describe GOP Treasurer Josh Mandel as a “young” 35. Read her profile of his race against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
  • The Democratic House Majority PAC launched new television spots in seven competitive districts.

Meena Ganesan and Geoffrey Lou Guray contributed to this report.


All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • President Obama delivers remarks at an event in Delray, Fla., at 10:10 a.m. He then travels to Ohio, where he and Vice President Biden will hold a rally at 3:50 p.m. Before meeting up with Mr. Obama, the vice president will deliver remarks at the University of Toledo at 11 a.m.
  • Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan attend a rally in Henderson, Nev., at 3:15 p.m. The GOP ticket then travels to Colorado for an event in Morrison at 9:05 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @kpolantz, @indiefilmfan, @tiffanymullon, @dePeystah, @meenaganesan and @abbruns.

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