Obama and Romney neck and neck as they prepare for final presidential debate
Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney will face off for the last time in the US presidential campaign tonight with their race for the White House a virtual dead heat only 15 days before polling day.
The candidates will discuss foreign policy during the third and final debate in Boca Raton, Florida, with President Obama buoyed by an improved showing in their second head-to-head last week and Mr Romney fired up by having closed a sizeable deficit in the opinion polls.
While a repeat of the testy exchanges of last week’s second debate is unlikely because of the way the event is structured, both men are expected to come out fighting.
The latest national opinion poll shows them divided by less than one percentage point and both will be keen to leave a lasting impression on undecided voters in a televised debate expected to attract an audience of between 60 and 70 million.
“A good performance is critical. This could be the event that decides the election one way or the other,” said John Pickering, professor of political science at Lynn University, the private college where the debate is taking place.
“The number of undecided voters is significant and this is the last time the candidates will be seen together. Everyone’s waiting for the final round.”
Mr Obama has been preparing for the debate with senior advisers at Camp David, the secluded retreat of the US president in the Maryland hills, since Friday. Mr Romney, by contrast, has been campaigning in Florida and taking every opportunity to attack his rival over his perceived lack of an agenda for a second term in office.
“He’s not saying that he is offering anything new. All he is offering is four more years of the same,” Paul Ryan, Mr Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, told Republican supporters at a pre-debate rally in Ocala, Florida.
After a bruising defeat to Mr Romney in the first debate in Denver, Mr Obama hit back strongly in New York last week with criticism of his challenger’s promise to restore economic prosperity and create 12 million jobs through a largely vague “Five Point Plan” of tax cuts and investment.
With honours even, tonight’s final debate will concentrate solely on foreign policy, something that provided a flashpoint in last week’s debate after a question about Libya.
Mr Obama reacted angrily when Mr Romney accused him of concentrating on a fundraising trip in the days after the 11 September attack in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and three staff, and they clashed again over when the president had used the term “act of terror”.
“Libya will come up and the whole Middle East thing will come up, such as what would happen if the Israelis decided to act alone on Iran,” said Prof Pickering, who watched students play the candidates and moderator at a practice run of the debate at Lynn University on Friday.
“I think we’ll also see a question about what is America’s role in the world. It should be Obama’s best debate, on foreign affairs, but Romney will be well prepared.”
And over the weekend reports flashed around Washington of developments in the Obama administration’s efforts to end Iran’s suspected drive to build a nuclear weapon. The White House denied a New York Times report that there was an agreement in principle for bilateral talks with Tehran after the election. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, however, said that the Obama administration had repeatedly expressed its willingness for such talks.
Prof Pickering said the format of the debate, which restricts the candidates to answering questions from the moderator instead of last week’s discussion style event, should make for a more civil discourse.
“They cannot talk to each other so that should stop the kind of thing you saw in the second debate, the anger and intensity,” he said.
That the pivotal final debate is being held in Florida, the largest of the swing states in play on the 6 November election day, and one in which the lead in the opinion polls has changed hands several times in recent weeks, is a happy coincidence given that the Commission on Presidential Debates chose the venue more than a year ago.
Yesterday, a tracking poll by online political analysts Real Clear Politics gave Mr Romney a 2.1 point lead, 48.8 per cent to 46.7, in Florida, which carries 29 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory.
Nationally, RCP gave Mr Obama the narrowest of leads, 47.1 per cent to 47.0, in its poll of polls.
With early voting already under way in many swing states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa, the tight poll results indicate that the race could be decided by which campaign is better able to get its supporters out.
Heading into the campaign’s final weeks, the economy and other domestic issues remain the main focus of both candidates.
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