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Candidates Inject Economy Into Foreign Policy Debate


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The third and final presidential debate was less dramatic than the ones before.

GREENE: Less dramatic but not without some drama. President Obama and Mitt Romney discussed foreign policy under the questioning of moderator Bob Schieffer.

INSKEEP: For much of the campaign, the Republican nominee has fiercely questioned Mr. Obama's foreign policy. Romney took a different approach last night, often emphasizing ways the two men agree. He shared the stage with a president determined to show they did not approach the world the same way at all.

GREENE: And both men also took every opportunity to steer the debate back to the economy. They argued that strength abroad requires strength at home, which gave them a chance to mention everything from teachers to the national debt.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Incumbents usually have an edge over the challengers when it comes to foreign policy and that was true for President Obama until recently. Recent polls have shown the president's advantage on this issue shrinking. And last night Mr. Obama seemed determined to get that advantage back.

To the surprise of many, Governor Romney, who got the first question, struck a non-combative tone, congratulating the president for taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership of al-Qaida. But Mr. Obama was not about to let it go at that.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida's a threat, because a few months ago, when you were asked, what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia - not al-Qaida, you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years. But Governor, you know, 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. You say that you're not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq, but just a few weeks ago you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now. And the challenge we have - I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong.

LIASSON: Romney responded.


MITT ROMNEY: We're talking about the Middle East and how to help the Middle East reject the kind of terrorism we're seeing and the rising tide of tumult and confusion. And attacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence.

LIASSON: Romney has often been critical of the president's leadership in the Middle East. But he hasn't offered an alternative approach. Here's how he answered the question of whether he would go beyond what the administration has done on Syria.


ROMNEY: Our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us - a responsible government, if possible. And I want to make sure they get armed and they have the arms necessary to defend themselves but also to remove - to remove Assad. But I do not want to see a military involvement on the part of our - of our troops.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Could we get a quick response, Mr. President, because I want to ask...

OBAMA: Well, I'll - I'll be very quick. What you just heard Governor Romney said is he doesn't have different ideas, and that's because we're doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syrian leadership and an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That's the kind of leadership we've shown. That's the kind of leadership we'll continue to show.

LIASSON: Whenever possible, both candidates segued back to the issue they know matters most to voters - the economy.


ROMNEY: But in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can't have 23 million people struggling to get a job. You can't have an economy that over the last three years keeps slowing down its growth rate. You can't have kids coming out of college, half of whom can't find a job today, or a job that's commensurate with their college degree. We have to get our economy going.

LIASSON: The president, too, resorted to familiar chunks of his stump speech, promising to use the money that's been spent abroad to start nation-building here at home.


OBAMA: And that's what my plan does, making sure that we're bringing manufacturing back to our shores so that we're creating jobs here, as we've done with the auto industry, not rewarding companies that are shipping jobs overseas; making sure that we've got the best education system in the world, including retraining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow; doing everything we can to control our own energy.

LIASSON: One clear difference between the candidates is the size of the military. Romney wants to spend more on defense - building more ships for the Navy, which he said is now smaller than at any time since 1917.


ROMNEY: Look, this in my view is the highest responsibility of the president of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts the president has as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.

LIASSON: This is a staple of Romney's stump speech, and the president came prepared with a zinger in response.


OBAMA: But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of "Battleship" where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities.

LIASSON: Governor Romney repeated some other familiar lines of attack, including that the president had apologized for America while overseas.


ROMNEY: Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq and - and by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.

OBAMA: Bob, let me respond. If we're going to talk about trips that we've taken, when I was a candidate for office, the first trip I took was to visit our troops. And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable. And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas. And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids. Which is why as president we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels, when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region. And the central question at this point is going to be who's going to be credible to all parties involved.

LIASSON: The president did not disguise his disdain for his opponent, prompting Republicans to say Mr. Obama was condescending and un-presidential. But he had a clear strategy. After playing it safe to disastrous consequences in the first debate, Mr. Obama decided another aggressive performance was needed to erase Romney's recent momentum. Romney, in contrast, played it safe last night. He was calm and restrained, like a candidate who believes he's in the lead. The instant polls judged the president the winner, but it will take a few days to see what effect, if any, this last debate has on the race. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Boca Raton.


INSKEEP: And we're hearing about the debate throughout this morning's program. Elsewhere we've got a close read of some of the candidates' remarks, and we'll hear how the debates sounded to two people with very differing points of view. We're glad you're with us on your local public radio station. You can continue following this program throughout the day on social media. We're on Facebook, we're on Twitter. We're @MorningEdition, @NPRGreene and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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