WASHINGTON — Voters care much less about global problems than they do about the economy, but Monday's debate on foreign policy still matters in a way that could tilt the election. This is the night for President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney to leave a lasting impression about leadership.
Obama will be the only commander in chief on stage, and if he loses the edge and aura in the final debate, it could hurt him on Election Day. All the discussion of Iran, Libya and al-Qaida is bound to stick less than the sense it portrays of which man would better command in a crisis and protect the country.
Trying to capitalize on the mood of voters, Obama campaigns as the leader who ends wars, not the guy who would begin new ones, as he suggests Romney is ready to do with Iran.
When Obama underlines that he is not just a candidate but a president who has seen the caskets come home, it is meant to diminish the standing of the former Massachusetts governor.
The test in the debate is whether Romney can erode Obama's advantage in whom voters trust to handle foreign affairs and national security. Polling shows Romney has shrunk the gap.
Obama was seen as having won a spirited second debate in part because he had the better of a key exchange with Romney over Libya. And that was after the economy had dominated most of the night.
Romney is expected Monday to exploit the Libya topic with a sharper focus. Questions abound about the intelligence before and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, let alone how Obama has responded to it.
In that sense, Libya again drives home the point about leadership. Romney's aim is to leave voters with the impression that Obama — the president who got Osama bin Laden — has allowed America's interests to slip from the Mideast to Asia.
Together in Florida, Obama and Romney will be appealing to a TV audience that is weary of war but no longer consumed by it. When George W. Bush ran for a second term in 2004, war and non-economic topics were named as chief voter concerns far more often than the economy at this point in the campaign.
Now the opposite is true, Gallup reported Monday.
Yet the election is too close to dismiss the importance of any remaining moment as a potential turning point with two weeks to go.
After a whole year in which foreign affairs have been the undercard of the fight, now they get their due with the stakes just where they should be — high. The presidency is about the world even during inward times.
Currency standoffs with China, nuclear showdowns with Iran and military tensions around the globe affect the economy and security of the United States. The next president ought to be able to do well on a job interview on every front.
Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/benfellerdc