For months the one reliable constant for Barack Obama was the public's approval of his handling of foreign policy and terrorism. Al-Qaida was on the run, he would say. The war in Iraq was over. Bin Laden was dead. Crowds cheered and national polls showed a majority in the country stood with him.
But with 15 days left before Election Day, the landscape has changed, and as Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney take their seats at their third, final and foreign-policy focused debate Monday evening in Boca Raton, Fla., the president will be facing headwinds from abroad instead of the breezes that once had been at his back.
Libya. Uncertainty in a post Arab Spring world. Iran's nuclear intentions. U.S. casualties at the hands of Afghan security forces. Europe's continued struggles with its economic and financial crisis. A conflagration in Syria. Amid these mounting challenges Obama will hear Romney charge him with exhibiting timid leadership.
At the same time, Romney, far less experienced on the international political scene, is seeking to close the deal with voters. He'll use Monday's debate to portray himself not only as an economic savior but as a plausible and stronger commander in chief. To that, Obama will warn that Romney represents the kind of foreign policy "that gets us into wars with no plan to get out."
The debate will pick up where the second debate left off — on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The attack underscored the uncertainty that has engulfed parts of the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that Obama supported. Obama also faces difficult questions about his administration's accounts in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and over unheeded requests for additional security in Libya's outposts.
Indeed, the Libya attack has become Obama's Achilles' Heel. Romney aimed and missed in a botched challenge to Obama in last week's debate. He gets his next and best shot Monday.
The debate also unfolds amid fresh reports that the Obama administration is holding open the possibility of one-on-one negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program — a potentially hopeful though hardly certain development in what has been the most nettlesome national security problem confronting the U.S.
Possible Iranian talks, first reported by The New York Times on Saturday, introduce a surprise element into the election campaign and provide a counterpoint to Romney's argument that Obama has not done enough to protect Israel against an Iranian nuclear threat. It's not clear how much Obama will make of this in the debate; the White House denied that an agreement to hold talks was in place. Romney's debate sparring partner Rob Portman, hinting at Romney's reaction, dismissed the news on Sunday as an orchestrated leak and said the U.S. should not enter into negotiations with Tehran without allied partners.
Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News has picked five topics for the debate, devoting the most time to the Middle East and terrorism. Other subjects are America's role in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and the rise of China.
Still, unlike their sharp divisions on economic and social issues, the foreign policy quarrels between Obama and Romney are less about goals than they are about strategy. Both candidates want to end combat troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, but Romney says such a step should not be hasty. Romney backs Obama administration sanctions against Iran, but says Obama's military threats should be tougher. Both stand tough against China on trade, but Romney would label China a currency manipulator and consider imposing tariffs to protect U.S. manufacturers. Both say the U.S. should not send U.S. troops to strife-torn Syria, but Romney has called for "more assertive" tactics.
Within that nuanced debate lie risks for both men. Voters want to see strength in their leaders and Obama can't afford to be defensive. But the country is also war weary and Romney can't sound too bellicose, especially to women voters, with whom he has made some inroads.
Though the days of Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize seem forgotten in the aftermath of euro crises and Arab Spring and Arab tumult, his standing on the world stage had seemed solid compared to Romney, who had faltered in his summer foray overseas.
Obama last week even joked about Romney's international troubles, which included slighting the British over security preparations for the Olympics and angering Palestinians by crediting Israel's culture for its greater economic success in the region.
"Some of you guys remember, after my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas," Obama told a white tie crowd at Thursday's Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner. "And I have to say, I'm impressed with how well Governor Romney has avoided that problem."
Yet however Romney is viewed beyond U.S. shores, his ratings on foreign policy among U.S. voters has been improving at Obama's expense. Obama's approval on foreign policy issues last month fell below 50 percent for the first time since May 2011, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And a Pew Research Center poll earlier this month found Obama and Romney almost even in public perceptions of who would better handle foreign policy questions. Romney had trailed Obama by 15 points on the same question in September.
Still, Obama is counting on one accomplishment that even Romney concedes.
Last week, at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, Obama reminded the audience that the last debate would focus on foreign policy. "Spoiler alert," he added. "We got bin Laden."