WASHINGTON — If, at the start of the general election campaign, you told a seasoned political strategist in either party that the fate of the presidential race could well hinge on the foreign policy-focused third debate, the reaction would have ranged from an eye roll to laughter.
And yet, here we are. President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney head to Boca Raton, Fla., for their final debate Monday night with national polls suggesting that the race is tied and with the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, dominating the headlines.
Following are five thoughts on what to watch for in the debate:
Romney's third strike on Libya: The conflicting stories coming out of the Obama administration over the Sept. 11 attack that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead should make for a potent Romney attack line. And yet, he has swung and missed twice on the issue. First, his campaign released a decidedly political statement before the news of Stevens's death broke. Then he lost the Libya back-and-forth in the second presidential debate as he tried to corner Obama and wound up cornered himself. If, in the final debate, Romney takes another big swing on Libya and comes up empty, his campaign may well look back on those three moments as one of the critical missed opportunities of the election.
Obama won the Libya battle but...: In the wake of Romney's blundering on the Libya attack in the second debate, Republicans said that Obama might have won that moment but that the ongoing controversy about the incident wouldn't go away and would ultimately hurt the president more than Romney. There's little question that in a foreign policy-focused debate Obama will be forced to explain in more detail why his administration reacted the way it did — and why there were so many seemingly contradictory threads regarding what happened. Romney probably won't make the same mistake he did in the second debate — allowing Obama a way to turn the tables on him — and instead will try to force the spotlight on the incumbent. Obama will have to provide some clarity, given the fuzziness that surrounds the attack.