BOCA RATON, Fla. — Foreign policy took command of the campaign spotlight Monday at the third and final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, two weeks before Election Day in a close race for the White House dominated by pocketbook issues and the economy.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and Iran's nuclear ambitions were all ripe for disagreement in the 90-minute event at Lynn University.
Both men spent the weekend in rehearsals, the president at Camp David in Maryland and Romney in Florida. They paid brief visits to the debate hall in the hours before its start.
Obama and Romney are locked in a close race in national opinion polls. For both men, the final days of the long campaign are likely to be a whirlwind of rallies in the far-flung battleground states. Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.
Barring a last-minute change in strategy by one campaign or the other, Obama appears on course to win states and the District of Columbia that account for 237 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The same is true for Romney in states with 191 electoral votes.
The battlegrounds account for the remaining 110 electoral votes: Florida (29), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Ohio (18) and Wisconsin (10).
The televised debate brought no cessation to other campaigning.
Obama's campaign launched a television ad in Florida that said the president ended the war in Iraq and has a plan to do the same in Afghanistan, accusing Romney of opposing him on both. It was not clear how often the ad would air, given the fall's overall focus on the economy.
Vice President Joe Biden, campaigning in Canton, Ohio, emphasized differences between the two candidates on the war in Afghanistan.
"We will leave Afghanistan in 2014, period. They say it depends," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, like everything with them, it depends. It depends on what day you find these guys."
Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, was in Colorado. "We are in the midst of deciding the kind of country we're going to be, the kind of people we're going to be, for a generation," he said.
Whatever the outcome of the final face-to-face confrontation, the debates have left an imprint on the race. Romney was widely judged the winner of the first debate over a listless president on Oct. 3, and he has risen in polls in the days since. Obama was much more energetic in the second.
Monday night marked the third time in less than a week that the president and his challenger shared a stage, following the feisty 90-minute town-hall-style meeting last Tuesday on Long Island and a white-tie charity dinner two night later where gracious compliments flowed and barbs dipped in humor flew.
The most memorable exchange of the second debate concerned Libya and Romney's contention that Obama's administration has responded poorly to an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
As for the Al Smith charity dinner, Obama previewed his all-purpose fallback to criticism on international affairs.
"Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden," he said, a reminder of the signature foreign policy triumph of his term, the death at the hand of U.S. special operations forces of the mastermind behind the terror attacks on the United States more than a decade ago.
The president and his challenger agreed long ago to devote one of their three debates to foreign policy, even though opinion polls show voters care most about economic concerns.
Growth has been slow and unemployment high across Obama's tenure in the White House. Romney, a wealthy former businessman, cites his experience as evidence he will put in place policies that can revive the economy.
In recent weeks, the former Massachusetts governor has stepped up his criticism of the president's handling of international matters, though his campaign hasn't spent any of its television advertising budget on commercials on the subject.
In a speech earlier this month, Romney accused the president of an absence of strong leadership in the Middle East, where popular revolutions have swept away autocratic regimes in Egypt and elsewhere in the past two years. He has also accused Obama of failing to support Israel strongly enough, of failing to make it clear that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon and of backing cuts in the defense budget that would harm military readiness.
Yet Romney has stumbled several times in attempting to establish his own credentials.
He offended the British when he traveled to England this summer and made comments viewed as critical of their preparation for the Olympic Games.
Democrats pounced when he failed to mention the U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in late August, and officials in both parties were critical of his comments about the attack in Benghazi while the facts were unknown.
Earlier this fall, a videotape surfaced showing him telling donors "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace. The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."