It's no secret that the economy has been the primary topic in the presidential race, but in the home-stretch of a dead-heat match, both campaigns are spending an increasing amount of time debating foreign policy.
Its new-found importance was evident on Sunday, when allies and surrogates of Mitt Romney and President Obama talked more about Libya and Iran than jobs and deficits. The discussion was a preview of Monday's foreign policy debate "“ likely the last major potential turning-point moment of the campaign — and both sides indicated their candidate will offer a hard-hitting condemnation of the other's international agenda.
Republicans, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., continued criticizing the White House over its handling of last month's terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In some of the most blunt language used by a top Romney surrogate, he questioned the president's honesty about revealing what happened.
"Here's what's troubling: what's most troubling about this is that one of the narratives the Obama campaign has laid out is that bin Laden is dead, they've bragged about that forever, and that al-Qaida is in retreat," Rubio said on CBS's Face the Nation. "And you start to wonder, did they basically say "˜do not allow any story to emerge that counters that narrative?' Is that why for two weeks they told us that the Libyan incident in Benghazi was a popular uprising and not a terrorist attack, because it ran counter to their campaign narrative? I hope that that's not true. But that's what you start to wonder about."
The sharp attacks have put Obama's campaign on the defensive over Libya, but they've also given it an opportunity to fire back that Romney and his allies have politicized the death of American diplomatic personnel. That's what Obama himself did during last week's debate, and it's the course his advisers took on Sunday.
Senior Obama Adviser David Axelrod told Meet The Press that Romney "tried to exploit" the crisis, and the Republican Party "has followed." He was irate over the decision by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to release more than a hundred pages of cables from the State Department, a move that Foreign Policy reported revealed the identities of several Libyans working with the United States.
"That's disgraceful," he said. "The way they've handled it is disgraceful."
The other major foreign policy topic "“ Iran "“ also received attention after The New York Times reported the Iran and the United States were nearing an agreement to negotiate over its nuclear program, a claim the White House denied. The Republican response, in this case, was uneven. Rubio dismissed its significance, saying that because the White House has dismissed the story its importance is negligible.
But Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who plays a prominent role in Romney's debate preparations, turned the story into an attack on Obama, saying on NBC's Meet the Press that it looks like "another national security leak from the White House."
"They've done a lot of that," he said.
The foreign policy debate couldn't come at a more critical time. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday morning found the race tied, with each candidate drawing 47 percent support. Monday's debate, the third, is also the race's only remaining major planned event left before voters take to the polls on Nov. 6.
Voters might care more about the economy, but each candidate's foreign policy agenda could have an impact. It's particularly important for the international novice Romney, a victim of his own missteps abroad during the campaign, to assure voters he can be a competent commander-in-chief. The Obama campaign is plainly trying to disqualify him on that point.
"I'm concerned about Gov. Romney becoming commander in chief," former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said on CNN's State of the Union. "Gov. Romney just seems to be bluster, blunder, cowboy at foreign policy."
It's a charge Romney and Obama will no doubt debate on Monday. In a campaign about the economy, it seems foreign policy may get the last word.