SBS Online

By Rhiannon Elston

With just 14 days left until the US election, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's final debate showdown in Florida could be their last real chance to impress voters.

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asks Luke Freedman of the US Studies Centre how the candidates match up in foreign policy, the subject matter of debate number three.

RE: Hi Luke, the outcome of this race is suddenly looking very uncertain. Pundits who were once confident calling a solid win for Obama now appear to be doing some serious backpedalling. Can you take us through the current state of play?

LF: Romney surged in the polls after the first debate. And while it appears his momentum has worn off the two candidates are now in a statistical dead heat in the national polls. Of course, given the Electoral College, it’s the polls in the key swing states that are most important. I feel pretty confident that in order to win the election Romney needs to win either Ohio or Wisconsin. He’s still trailing, albeit not by much, in both of these states. As such, I still give the slight edge to President Obama. We could be in for a really long and suspenseful election night.

RE: Foreign policy is on the table in this final debate and we’ve seen Mitt Romney toughen up his stance in this area in recent weeks. What are his key policies and how do they compare to Obama’s?

LF: While the two candidates exchange harsh words over foreign policy there aren’t that many differences between the two on a lot of the key issues. I’m not saying they wouldn’t end up responding to situations differently, just that their policies are probably more similar than the rhetoric suggests.

President Obama has pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 while Romney wants to consult with commanders before committing to a firm deadline. It’s almost certain though that Romney will stick to the same timetable.

Both candidates have said that it's unacceptable for Iran to get a nuclear weapon and have refused to take any options off the table. Romney has criticised the president for not having resolved the situation during his time in office.

One area where there is a clear difference is on defence spending. Romney is proposing to spend roughly 1 to 1.6 trillion more than Obama over the next ten years.

RE: The finding and killing Osama bin Laden is often cited as one of Obama’s biggest successes as President – but he has also faced criticism over his handling of the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi. How do you think voters view Obama’s record on foreign policy?

LF: Obama has consistently gotten high ratings on foreign policy but his edge here seems to be slipping a bit. A recent Rasmussen Poll had 46% of voters saying they approved of his foreign policy compared to 39% who disapprove. This is partially a result of Benghazi and the recent demonstrations across the Middle East. But, it may also be Republican leaning voters forming more partisan opinions as the election grows closer.

RE: Earlier in the race we saw Romney receiving international criticism during overseas visits, including from the UK where he questioned London’s readiness for the Olympics. Are those earlier gaffes likely to come back and haunt him?

LF: I don’t think so. Like most gaffes, it made news for a day or two and then faded away. I assume President Obama will make reference to it tomorrow but voters don’t see this kind of thing as a big issue. And more broadly speaking, this election is primarily about domestic not foreign policy.

RE: Observers often say incumbents have the edge in foreign policy, would you agree with that in this case?

LF: Yes, I’d say that’s probably the case here. And additionally, the Romney/Ryan ticket has very little experience on foreign policy. But I don’t think the divide is large enough to sway many voters.

RE: And finally, which particular issues do you think we’re likely to see the fiercest discussion?

LF: My guess is we’ll see some intense debate over the Benghazi attacks. Republicans have been trying to make Obama’s handling of the situation into a key campaign issue but Romney fumbled the ball last week when he mistakenly claimed the president hadn’t immediately called the attacks an ‘act of terror.’ I’m sure he’ll try to refocus this critique though.

The discussions over Iran should be particularly interesting. The New York Times had an article over the weekend stating that the US and Iran had agreed to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration has denied the story but I’m curious to hear what the president has to say on the matter.

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This article originally appeared on SBS News Online.