“We have to stand by our principles,” Romney said. “… But unfortunately, nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago.”
The third and final presidential debate focused largely on defense and foreign policy issues, with the two rivals painting vastly different pictures of the world: safer and tighter-knit, Obama suggested; dangerous and more threatening, Romney said.
PHOTOS: Memorable presidential debate moments
But on many issues, including Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and the use of predator drones — which both men endorsed — the two were often largely in agreement, despite their sometimes heated rhetoric.
Most of their sharpest exchanges involved domestic policy, with the two restating many of the positions they took in their first two debates.
Obama accused Romney of favoring across-the-board tax cuts that would help the wealthy at the expense of the the middle class while plunging the country even deeper into debt. Romney cited his decades working in private business, rescuing the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics and governing Massachusetts, saying in every instance he managed to keep the books in balance and would do so again as president.
The two sat side by side at a wooden table facing the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, who kept a much tighter rein on the two men than in their previous town-hall-style encounter.
Even so, the president was on the attack much of evening, alternately dismissive and sarcastic toward his Republican rival.
At one point, when Romney criticized threatened defense cuts and called for building more Navy ships and bulking up the Air Force, Obama suggested his rival “maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works."
INTERACTIVE: Battleground states map
“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 our military's changed," the president taunted. "We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
The two candidates repeatedly pivoted from foreign to domestic issues.
Romney said America’s role is to “make the world more peaceful,” and that to do so, “America must be strong. America must lead.”
“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,” he said.
Obama answered that because he presided over an end to the war in Iraq, began a transition out of Afghanistan and strengthened alliances with partners abroad, the nation is in a position to “start rebuilding America.”
Romney’s approach was the wrong one both home and abroad, Obama added, tying him to what the president said was the previous administration's promotion of “wrong and reckless policies.”
“He's praised George Bush as a good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century,” Obama said.
The combative exchange underscored the high stakes in a debate coming just two weeks before an election that appears to be a dead heat.
Obama, who has seen his earlier lead slip since a lethargic opening debate in Denver, was more clearly on the offensive and seeking to build on the inherent advantage as the commander in chief.
Romney responded by brushing aside the attacks, saying they failed to address the serious challenges — and opportunities — the country faces as the Middle East convulses in widespread upheaval.
Romney, consistent with the earlier debates, took a more moderate stance than he has in much of the campaign.
DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?
He praised Obama for the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden but said the country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He said the answer is greater economic opportunities and the spread of freedom
Obama went on the attack, citing Romney’s earlier Cold War-style rhetoric and suggesting Romney wanted to institute a 1980s foreign policy to go along with a social policy from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s.
“Every time you’ve offered an opinion,” the president said bluntly. “You’ve been wrong.”
The 90-minute session on the campus of Lynn University in South Florida was seen as favoring Obama, at least starting out. He is the nation's commander in chief, with the gravitas that confers. Moreover, he could boast, as he has throughout the campaign, of several major accomplishments, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, keeping his pledge to end the war in Iraq and laying out plans to end America's increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan.
Hours before the debate, the Obama campaign broadcast a new TV spot highlighting the withdrawal from Iraq and plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “It's time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here,” the ad stated, tying an economic argument to the president's foreign policy message.
In the past few weeks, however, Obama has been thrown on the defensive on foreign policy, once considered his strongest suit, as the administration offered an evolving series of explanations of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the assault, details of which are still hazy.
Despite that opening, Romney has not been terribly sure-footed when he strays from his campaign's central focus on the economy. He staged a poorly reviewed summer trip to Europe and Israel, puzzled even some Republicans by calling Russia the nation’s top strategic foe, and has been burned by attempts to capitalize on the controversy over Benghazi, including a factual misstatement in last week's debate.
Romney’s commanding Oct. 3 performance in Denver rallied Republicans and forestalled a possible Obama runaway; the president's comeback last week on Long Island, N.Y., reassured Democrats and averted panic in his party, though it failed to recoup the momentum Obama lost after his poor initial showing.
With just 14 full days of campaigning left, the two men are running neck-and-neck in national polls, even as the president continues to hold a small edge in the state-by-state electoral vote contest.
The topic of Monday night's debate was a break from the campaign's recent focus on abortion, birth control and other issues aimed primarily at female voters, who are seen as potentially the decisive bloc on Election Day.
The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy, however, have been marginal, with both sides magnifying them to suggest a greater separation than exists. Throughout the campaign, for instance, Romney has criticized Obama's timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but, at the same time, indicated he would adhere to the plan to bring them home by the end of 2014.
He has repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more to secure stability in Syria and Libya, but has not said whether he would consider committing U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in either nation.
Romney has mainly painted his foreign policy vision in broad strokes, saying he would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” — a Republican standby since the days of Ronald Reagan — and seek to preside over “an American century.”
More than 67 million people tuned in to the first debate, and the viewership was nearly as large for last week's follow-up. The audience for the final session in Florida was expected to be smaller, partly because of the topic — foreign policy is not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans — and competition with “Monday Night Football” and the deciding game of baseball's National League Championship Series.
Monday’s debate was significant as the last chance for voters to see the two presidential hopefuls standing by side by side and engaging in a relatively free-flowing, unscripted exchange. It also represented the last major chance the candidates had to appeal to voters who have yet to make up their minds and, perhaps more important, to excite their supporters and motivate them to turn out for the Nov. 6 election.
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook
Twitter: @markzbarabak @mikememoli