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Presidential candidates focus on foreign -

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Presidential candidates focus on foreign
Jane Cowan reported this story on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 12:38:00

ELEANOR HALL: Now to the United States, where president Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, are now engaging in their final televised debate.

This third debate is on foreign policy and is taking place just two weeks before polling day.

North America correspondent Jane Cowan is watching the debate in Boca Raton in Florida and she joins us from there now.

Jane, foreign policy is assumed to be an Obama strength - did he capitalise on that today?

JANE COWAN: I think Eleanor it's fair to say that yes he did. Barack Obama was certainly using his incumbency and his four years experience as commander-in-chief to his full advantage.

He opened by making a series of quite biting comments to Mitt Romney, saying for instance, look I know you haven't been in a position to exercise any decisions in the foreign policy realm, but every time you've exercised an opinion, you've been wrong.

For instance, you said we shouldn't have a timeline on pulling troops out of Afghanistan, then you said we should and he went on to make the point that basically Mitt Romney's foreign policy had been all over the map, confusing only to US troops but to their allies as well.

And Eleanor at times, the dynamic has been almost like Barack Obama is giving Mitt Romney a bit of a tutorial of foreign policy 101.

The president is certainly looking like the one who's in command of this material.

ELEANOR HALL: So it sounds like he's come out swinging again. Political analysts have been saying that with the national opinion polls so close, this debate has gained even more importance for both candidates. You're not seeing any more caution in the way that they're debating?

JANE COWAN: Well they did begin with at least a pretence of politeness. Mitt Romney was thanking Barack Obama for being there, saying it was good to see him again and giving him some credit for the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden.

The dynamics of this debate are a little bit different in the sense that the two men are seated at a table, there's no roaming about the stage or getting in each other's faces like we saw in the second debate, which was the town hall style one.

So that might have affected things, but it did very quickly get testy, especially when Barack Obama was almost mocking Mitt Romney for his approach to foreign policy.

So I think they seem to have thrown caution to the wind, although they have been conscious that, you know, to avoid making gaffes because any mistake this close to the election will be impossible to sort of wipe over, there'll be no putting the genie back in the bottle.

ELEANOR HALL: Indeed. Now Jane, did Mitt Romney raise the Libya issue again?

JANE COWAN: Well he didn't get the chance before Bob Schieffer, the moderator from CBS, raised it in his very first question and that is where the discussion first got very heated and quickly descended into a broader quarrel over foreign policy in general.

Let's hear a flavour of that.

MITT ROMNEY: Russia, I indicated is a geopolitical foe, not a - excuse me - it's a geopolitical foe and I said in the same paragraph, I said and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the UN time and time again. I have clear eyes on this, I'm not going to wear rose coloured glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr Putin and I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election.

After the election, he'll get more backbone. Number two with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed I believe that there should have been a status of forces agreement…

BARACK OBAMA: That's not true.

MITT ROMNEY: Oh you didn't? You didn't want a status of forces agreement?

BARACK OBAMA: No. What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.

MITT ROMNEY: I'm sorry, you actually, there was an effort on the part of the president to have a status of forces agreement and I concurred to that and said that we should have some number of troops that stayed on. That was something I concurred with.

BARACK OBAMA: Governor -

MITT ROMNEY: That was your posture, that was my posture as well. You thought it should have been 5,000 troops, I thought it should have been more troops. But… the answer was we got no troops through whatsoever.

BARACK OBAMA: This is just a few weeks ago that you indicated that we should still have troops in Iraq.

MITT ROMNEY: No I didn't - I'm sorry..

BARACK OBAMA: ... in your speech...

MITT ROMNEY: I indicated that you failed to put in place a status of forces agreement at the end of the conflict that existed.

BARACK OBAMA: Governor, here's one thing I've learnt as commander-in-chief. You've got to be clear. Now you just have a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.

ELEANOR HALL: That's president Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and Jane certainly it's sounding a little testy there. Has the focus in this debate stayed on foreign policy or have they brought the economy back in?

JANE COWAN: No it has not. The moderator hasn't managed to keep them stuck on foreign policy, it was actually the president Barack Obama who turned the discussion back to the economy. It had been thought that that was what Mitt Romney's strategy would be but Barack Obama said that the US had spent so much time on nation building around the world, it had neglected its own economic growth.

Mitt Romney then did also weigh in, but since then they've talked about everything down to tax cuts - at one point, the conversation strayed so far from foreign policy that the candidates ended up talking about education and the hiring of teachers, to the point where the moderator interrupted and said we're going to have to bring you back to topic, and there was some laughter from the audience at that point.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes I've got to say I do feel sorry for the moderators in these debates.

Jane thanks very much for that. Jane Cowan at Boca Raton in Florida for the third US election debate.