The last debate also comes against the backdrop of a presidential horse-race in which Romney has surged and Obama's lead has shrunk. Here are a few things to watch for.
Romney's Achilles heel: Foreign affairs has always been a weakness for the Republican, and not just because Obama, by winding down two unpopular wars and nabbing bin Laden, has made it one of his greatest strengths. From a summer foreign trip filled with mishaps to his widely criticized knee-jerk reaction to the events of this Sept. 11 to his flub in the last debate, Romney has consistently erred when it comes to foreign affairs, in ways that call into question not just his stances on these issues but his commander-in-chief chops. Luckily for him, foreign policy is far from the top of most voters' minds this election. But for those who place a priority on such things, this debate is the Republican's last chance to look serious and knowledgeable on international issues. As Matt Bennett, a former Bill Clinton adviser now with the Democratic think-tank Third Way, told Politico, "So far, Romney is batting zero when it comes to landing a punch on foreign policy or national security."
The case against Obama: In addition to his foreign policy-focused book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney has given multiple internationally focused addresses this campaign season, foreshadowing the lines he'll likely take against the president at the debate. His general critique is that Obama has taken an overly deferential, insufficiently assertive stance toward the rest of the world, failing to adequately support American allies or confront American enemies. Too often, he says, Obama has allowed the U.S. to be at the mercy of world events rather than in a position to shape them. In particular, he accuses Obama of not being sufficiently friendly to Israel, of not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, of weakening the military with spending cuts, and of failing to take a tougher stance toward Chinese economic abuses. On the current Mideast turmoil, Romney accuses the president of covering up security and intelligence lapses that allowed American installations to be attacked by blaming them on spontaneous eruptions of anti-American sentiment rather than terrorism. But as with so many foreign issues, Romney's bungling of details has obscured his larger case. In last week's debate, he seemed to think he had trapped Obama: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration. Is that what you're saying?" Obama replied dryly, "Please proceed, Governor," leaving Romney flummoxed when moderator Candy Crowley corrected him. In fact, Obama had used the phrase "acts of terror" in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden speech -- but he also continued to point to an American-made anti-Muslim video as the spark for the attacks for several more weeks. (For more, see Jeffrey Goldberg's questions for Obama).