– The eyes of the world were on South Florida on Monday evening as issues of the world — foreign and military policy — took center stage in a presidential campaign that's been dominated, until now, by the economy.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney started sparring from the moment they took the debate stage at Lynn University — where each was hoping to close the sale with American voters two weeks before Election Day in a contest that polls show is exceedingly tight in Florida and other battleground states.
Within the first few minutes, the jabs and zingers were flying.
"I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership of Al-Qaida, but we can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said.
Obama's comeback included ridiculing Romney for his campaign-season assertion that Russia is America's top geopolitical threat. "The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But, governor, when it comes to our foreign policy you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama said.
Romney's retort: "Attacking me is not an agenda."
Romney complained that the Navy is smaller than it's been any time since 1927 and the Air Force is older and smaller than it's been since it was founded in 1947. He promised to increase military spending.
Obama mocked Romney's claims, saying, "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed."
Israel — one of the most important issues to many in South Florida because of this area's large and politically active Jewish population — got lots of attention from the candidates. It was also a backdrop for broader discussions about the Middle East, particularly the Arab Spring and the threat Israel faces from Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
Both candidates pledged intense support for Israel, but neither directly answered a question about whether he'd declare that an attack on Israel is tantamount to an attack on the U.S.
"Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in our region, and if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel," Obama said.
Romney said he wanted "to underscore the same point the president made. If I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States we will stand with Israel. And if Israel is attacked, we have their back. Not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily."
Obama also said he would not permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and said he's launched "crippling sanctions" to stop that nation's efforts. Romney said he supports sanctions, but that more needs to be done to isolate the country. He'd tighten sanctions and increase diplomatic pressure.
The debate site was 266 miles from Cuba in a state where Cuban-Americans are a pivotal voting bloc — more than two-thirds of the Cubans living in the U.S. live in Miami-Dade County — that generally supports Republican candidates — and where Fidel Castro once again has been subject of rumors that he's near death. But Cuba came up only when moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News noted the debate was taking place on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy revealing the presence of missiles in the island nation that brought the region to the brink of nuclear war.
Other international issues near and dear to South Floridians weren't on the agenda either: immigration and border security and Venezuela, the country run by the recently re-elected President Hugo Chavez, who is despised by many people who've fled the nation and taken up residence in South Florida. Florida is home to more than 102,000 Venezuelans, according to the 2010 Census.
In their last chance to sell their views directly to tens of millions of Americans, Obama and Romney veered off foreign policy and barraged each other with attacks.
In his closing statement, the president talked about making education a higher priority for government, investing in alternative energy and higher taxes on the wealthy.
"I have got a different vision for America," Obama said, comparing his approach to Romney's. "I want to build on our strengths. … After a decade of war, we have to do some nation-building at home."
Romney, in his closing remarks, maintained that he has the experience needed to get the economy going. He said he could balance the budget and improve bipartisanship in Washington.
"I'm optimistic about our future," Romney said. "We have an opportunity to have real leadership….America is going to come back."
Polling late Monday night showed viewers thought Obama was the clear winner of the debate. A CBA News poll found 53 percent said Obama won, 23 percent called Romney the winner, 23 and 24 percent scored it a tie. The poll of 521 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Public Policy Polling surveyed voters in 11 swing states, including Florida, also found 53 percent of those surveyed. Romney did much better in the PPP survey, with 42 percent picking him as the winner. Obama was seen as the winner by most demographic groups: women, men, Hispanics, blacks, whites, young voters and seniors. The survey of 500 swing state debate watchers had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, said Romney did what he needed to do
"The president seemed to be wanting to land some talking point or cute little line," Rubio said. "He sometimes almost appeared small compared to the issues they were talking about."
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Obama fared better than Romney.
"I think repeatedly the president did what he needed to do in this debate: demonstrate that he is focused, that he has the vision, that he is commander in chief, that he has reestablished America's leadership in the world and has been able to move us forward diplomatically," she said.
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, said Romney seemed unfamiliar with foreign policy issues.
"The American people were waiting to hold both of these candidates up to the commander-in-chief task," Deutch said. "The president passed with flying colors, but Governor Romney, because of all the uncertainty with so many issues, I think he failed in convincing the people of South Florida that he will be able to be the kind of strong leadership that we have had for four years."
"There is no question that the greatest national security threat the United States faces is Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. There’s also no question the Obama administration has failed to meet this challenge. Instead, Iran is now four years closer to nuclear weapons capability. The test of time has debunked the wisdom of the President’s willingness to meet with the world’s worst tyrants without preconditions and without pressure. Elsewhere around the globe, the President’s strategy of leading from behind is unraveling before our eyes,” she said.
The debate took place at the 750-seat Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center. Landing the debate was a coup for the independent university that started as a Roman Catholic school for girls, hit university status in 1991 and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
At the tail end of a long night of pointed exchanges between the two candidates, Schieffer suffered a slip of the tongue. When asking about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, Schieffer inadvertently referred to catching "Obama, uh, Bin Laden."
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