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Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have battled over national security in the third and final presidential debate at Boca Raton, Florida.

The rivals tangled over the Arab Spring, Iran, China’s rise and more in a feisty 90-minute head-to-head.

Barack Obama said his Republican challenger was “all over the map” on foreign policy, while Mitt Romney said the president had failed to uphold American global leadership.

The two candidates are running neck and neck with two weeks until the election.

In the final debate, moderated by veteran CBS News presenter Bob Schieffer, there were no noticeable gaffes or knockout blows.

The forum at Lynn University featured little of the interrupting that marked their second encounter last week in New York, when Barack Obama came out swinging after his lackluster performance in their first head to head in Denver, Colorado.

The rivals found some common ground – each declared unequivocal support for Israel and both voiced opposition to US military involvement in Syria.

Mitt Romney also said he agreed with the president’s policy of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by 2014 – the Republican has suggested otherwise in the past.

In laying out one of his overarching themes on foreign policy, Mitt Romney said the US under President Barack Obama’s leadership had allowed “tumult” to engulf the Middle East.

He cited civilian deaths in Syria, the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Iran’s nuclear programme.

But the Republican steered clear of his suggestion in the last debate that the Obama administration had mishandled last month’s Libya US consulate attack, which left four Americans dead.

Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have battled over national security in the third and final presidential debate at Boca Raton

Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have battled over national security in the third and final presidential debate at Boca Raton

“What’s been happening over the last couple of years is, as we’re watching this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see al-Qaeda rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” Mitt Romney said.

“I congratulate him on taking out Osama Bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaeda, but we can’t kill our way out of this… We must have a comprehensive strategy.”

Barack Obama hit back that he was glad that Mitt Romney had recognized the threat posed by al-Qaeda, reminding the former Massachusetts governor that he had earlier this year cast Russia as America’s number one geo-political foe.

The president sought to portray Mitt Romney as a foreign policy novice who lacked the consistency needed to be commander-in-chief.

Barack Obama said Mitt Romney had backed a continued troop presence in Iraq, opposed nuclear treaties with Russia, even when they had broad bipartisan backing, and accused the Republican of flip-flopping over whether the US should have a timeline for leaving Afghanistan.

“What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map,” Barack Obama said.

The president said that he had ended the war in Iraq and “decimated” al-Qaeda’s leadership, allowing the US to prepare a responsible timeline for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Mitt Romney, whose book is called No Apology, accused Barack Obama of having gone on “an apology tour” after he took office and of saying at the time he would meet “all the world’s worst actors”, including leaders from North Korea and Iran.

“I think they looked at that and saw weakness,” Mitt Romney said.

The president hit back, saying: “Nothing Governor Romney has just said is true, starting with the notion of me apologizing,” a claim Barack Obama labeled the “biggest whopper” of the campaign.

The rivals also jostled to act tougher than the other on China, as allegations flew about trade violations and currency manipulation by Beijing.

Although the debate’s focus was meant to be on foreign affairs, the two candidates pivoted repeatedly back to the fragile US economy, the issue uppermost in voters’ minds.

Mitt Romney said he knew what it took to create jobs and boost pay, while Barack Obama was nine million jobs short of his pledge of 5.4% employment.

But Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney of planning $5 trillion of tax cuts and $2 trillion of defence spending the military had not even requested.

“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Barack Obama said in one of the night’s most memorable lines.

“Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”

An NBC poll on Sunday put the men in a dead heat, each with 47% support.

A lackluster performance by Barack Obama in the opening debate in Denver, Colorado, on 3 October gave Mitt Romney a campaign boost.

But in their second face-off in New York last week, a more aggressive Barack Obama buried the memory of a poor first showing as he came out swinging on the economy, tax and foreign policy.

After Monday night’s showdown, both candidates will be returning to the campaign trail for a grueling final two weeks of wooing voters in swing states.

The final debate behind them, both men will now launch a final fortnight of campaigning. Already four million ballots have been cast in early voting in more than two dozen states.

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President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney are making final preparations for the first of three crucial presidential debates.

With just 34 days to go until election day, Wednesday’s Denver debate will focus on domestic policy issues.

Mitt Romney has long criticized the president for his economic record, but is likely to face questions over his own tax plans and immigration policy.

Barack Obama has opened up a narrow lead in the race over the past month.

He leads Mitt Romney in national polls and in many recent polls conducted in the swing states that will decide the election.

The latest national survey, released on Tuesday by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, shows Barack Obama leading, but by just 49% to 46%.

Mitt Romney has struggled in the polls since a secretly filmed recording emerged of him telling a private fundraising event that the 47% of Americans who did not pay income tax viewed themselves as “victims” and were dependent on government help.

Wednesday’s debate at the University of Denver will be the first time voters across the US have had the chance to see Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on stage together.

Both men have already been on the campaign trail for months, and used their prime-time speaking slots at the recent party conventions to make their case to voters.

An even bigger audience is expected for this first debate: the opening head-to-head of the 2008 election attracted more than 50 million TV viewers across the US.

The candidates’ body language will be heavily scrutinized, as will their tone of voice and how they handle themselves under pressure. Media pundits and campaign spin doctors will attempt to seize on any gaffe or mis-statement in an effort to claim victory.

Both campaigns have been playing down their man’s prospects in the run-up to the debate, with Barack Obama praising his opponent’s debating skills and Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan insisting that one debate alone will not change the campaign.

Nevertheless, both candidates’ messages are well-honed, and their sharp words for each other are familiar to millions of swing-state voters who have faced a onslaught of mostly negative TV advertisements in recent months.

Mitt Romney’s campaign is based around his belief that Barack Obama’s stewardship of the US economy has been a dismal failure. He points to an enduringly high unemployment rate (currently 8.1%) and poor job growth, and says his experience in business will turn the US economy around.

Barack Obama, by contrast, says his opponent offers little except a rehashing of the “failed” Republican policies that caused the economic crash of 2008.

The president proposes tax rises for the wealthiest Americans to help reduce the federal budget deficit, and says his opponent’s plans would hurt the middle class.

But critics say neither man has fully fleshed out his economic policies, and doubts remains about how either Republican or Democrat will tackle the $15 trillion US deficit.

The two candidates have been largely absent from the campaign trail in recent days, shutting themselves away with aides for hours of rigorous preparation and practice.

Mitt Romney, who is known for his meticulous approach to debates, arrived in Denver on Monday and has been using Ohio Senator Rob Portman to play the role of Barack Obama.

The president, meanwhile, has been preparing in Las Vegas, Nevada, with 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry reportedly playing Mitt Romney.

With the principals waiting in the wings, Tuesday saw vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take centre stage.

Joe Biden stole the headlines, telling a campaign rally in North Carolina that the US middle class had been “buried” for four years. The remark was seized on gleefully by the Romney campaign.

“Of course the middle class has been buried,” Paul Ryan said in Iowa later on.

“They’re being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”

Presidential election debates 2012:

October 3rd: Denver, Colorado. Domestic policy. Moderated by Jim Lehrer (PBS)

October 11th: Danville, Kentucky. Vice-presidential debate. Moderated by Martha Raddatz (ABC)

October 16th: Hempstead, New York. Town-hall style foreign policy debate. Moderator: Candy Crowley (CNN)

October 22nd: Boca Raton, Florida. Moderator: Bob Schieffer (CBS)

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