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A campaign where the polls are close and few undecided voters are left, where the first two debates were widely scored 1-to-1, Americans may have been looking to Monday night's encounter to settle the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would be the better president over the next four years.


It is hard to imagine that those who have already made up their minds will be swayed. At least, not on the supposed topic of the debate: foreign policy.

Romney's arguments on what he would do on matters of foreign and security policy seemed to be little different from Obama's over the last four years, or the policies the incumbent seems likely to pursue over the next four, except to argue that he would do it better and louder.

The inside baseball interpretation of the challenger's approach is that his major task in this debate, and in the few remaining days of the campaign, is to avoid any association with the Dick Cheney-neocon wing of the Republican Party, to avoid being labeled as a warmonger who is all too eager to go to war against Iran.

But there were two points on which Romney was wrong and, if undecided voters are paying attention, will count against him. One was his oft-made, and oft-refuted, accusation that Obama, early in his administration, engaged in an "apology tour" of the world in which he groveled before the nations of the Middle East for an imagined list of American sins. That charge is false, and Romney is wrong to keep making it.

The other Romney misstep was his choice to hammer away at real and imagined cuts in defense spending and an argument that the United States is unacceptably weak because it has too few surface ships and aircraft. Obama's rejoinder, that we also have fewer horses and bayonets, will be seen by many as unpresidentially snippy. But it was valid as an argument that security in the modern world depends less on numbers than on skill, stealth and technology.

And, while moderator Bob Schieffer and many of those watching at home may have been dismayed by the change in focus, both candidates were right to argue that our security in the world is dependent on our economic strength at home. On that question, though, Obama's argument was superior, pointing out as he did that Romney's tax plans and budget proposals simply do not add up, and will place the nation in a position where it must face either much higher deficits or crippling tax hikes on the productive middle class.

Two weeks to go.

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