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5 things to watch in tonight's debate

By Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
updated 1:13 PM EDT, Wed October 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Because of intel briefings, Romney more informed about foreign policy than he's letting on
  • Drones aren't a key issue, but they do present problems for Obama with his party
  • Debate format won't allow for candidates to talk about some of the things they want to
  • Setting won't lend itself to the kind of fireworks that lit up last week's debate

Boca Raton, Florida (CNN) -- President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney meet Monday night in the last of their three debates, this one focused on foreign policy.

Unlike last week's contentious town hall-style debate in which the candidates ambled around the stage and parried with each other, Obama and Romney will be seated at a table with moderator Bob Schieffer, who told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram what he hopes comes out of the debate:

"People are watching to judge character. I don't think it matters what the questions are about -- what matters is how candidates answer. Do they seem in control? ... I'm just there to help the viewers get a better understanding of who these people are."

Here are five things to watch tonight:

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1. How much does Romney know about Libya?

Romney will undoubtedly raise a lot questions about Obama's handling of the terror attack in Libya, but there's a good chance he already has some answers.

Don't forget: Romney has been receiving briefings from the U.S. intelligence community since September 17, as is customary for a presidential challenger in the final stages of a campaign.

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His first briefing came a week after the breach of the Benghazi mission that left four Americans dead. His second briefing took place at the CIA, on September 27.

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Was Romney briefed on the Benghazi attack? Did he specifically request a briefing about Libya? And crucially, has Romney seen any intelligence suggesting a different version of events than the one outlined by the president?

Citing the sensitivity of such things, the Romney campaign declined to comment.

"We don't discuss his intelligence briefings, sorry," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail.

It's a safe bet Romney won't discuss them tonight either.

So it's impossible to know whether Romney's understanding of the Libya attack squares with what White House officials have said publicly in the wake of the incident.

But with pre-debate chatter focusing on Romney's relative lack of knowledge in the foreign policy arena, it's worth remembering that Romney is actually more informed on these issues than he lets on.

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2. Drones put Obama at odds with his liberal base

Obama was described in a recent Frontline documentary as "the first Nobel Peace Prize winner with a kill list."

Hawkish Republicans warned in 2008 that the man who built his campaign on ending the war in Iraq, closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and strengthening civil liberties in the face of Bush-era surveillance procedures would usher in a new era of American weakness abroad.

Instead, the president has fiercely pursued al Qaeda terrorists abroad, with the killing of Osama bin Laden gleaming as the crown jewel of his national security resume.

The administration's emphasis on CIA-operated predator drone attacks against terrorists in Pakistan has aggravated liberals who say the strikes cause civilian casualties and are carried out under a dubious legal framework. Obama has authorized six times more than the number green-lighted by George W. Bush, according to author and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.

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The administration has been reluctant to discuss drone strikes, but top intelligence officials have defended the actions as legal, meticulously plotted and designed to avoid innocent casualties.

Voters probably won't go to the polls with visions of unmanned aircraft hovering above the Pakistan wilderness in their heads, but like Obama's embrace of natural gas drilling in the previous debate, it's a reminder that the president has strayed from the liberal base that helped elect him in the first place.

How he handles questions about the secret air war against al Qaeda -- if those questions arise -- are sure to be carefully scrutinized by Democratic activists he needs to turn out on Election Day.

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3. The other stuff

Conventional wisdom suggests that a debate about foreign policy would work in Obama's favor.

He is, after all, the guy who got bin Laden. And for most of the year, polls have shown Obama leading Romney on the question of which candidate is more trusted on foreign policy and national security matters.

Indeed, the image of Obama turning to Romney and scolding him for trying to politicize the Benghazi attack stands out as one of the president's strongest moments from the last debate.

But as perceptions harden in the final two weeks of the campaign, it's clear the president would rather talk about women's issues and Romney's "sketchy" tax plan in an effort to recover some breathing room in Ohio, Virginia and a handful of other states where polls show the race tightening.

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It won't be easy to bring up abortion or contraception on a night devoted to Chinese currency manipulation, troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and "red lines" for Israel and Iran -- but you can be sure the president will try.

Certainly the same dynamic holds true for Romney, who would probably rather talk about taxes, the federal debt and Obama's lack of a vision for a second term -- a new-ish argument from his campaign that appears to be getting some traction.

But there is some potential for Romney here. He has a longstanding friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Hi, Florida!) dating back to their days as young business consultants in Boston.

And his campaign clearly sees opportunity in the Libya situation. If Romney's internal polling didn't show the Libya mess chipping away at Obama's edge on the commander-in-chief question, he would have stopped talking about a long time ago.

Obama avoided answering a question about security failings at the Benghazi mission in the previous debate. He will almost certainly have to on Monday.

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4. The art of the pivot

But even in a debate focusing on foreign policy, the two presidential candidates will find moments to try to swing the discussion to issue No. 1 with American voters -- the economy.

Obama and Romney are good at pivoting when answering debate questions. Last week, the president used a question from a college student concerned about finding a job in the work force when he graduates to tout the rescue of the domestic auto giants. And Romney pivoted a number of times to criticize Obama over his record in the White House these past four years.

We'll be looking to see how much both men master the pivot at Monday night's final face-off.

The rise of China came up at last week's town hall showdown, and both candidates quickly brought the conversation back to jobs.

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"I think they will pivot to the economy when they can. The most obvious places to do that are China's holding of American debt and Washington's trade showdowns with Beijing," says CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, who moderated last week's debate.

The format will also allow both men to pivot.

There will be six 15-minute segments. Each segment will start with a question followed by two-minute answers from each candidate. Schieffer can then use the balance of time in each segment to continue discussion of the topic. That's a lot more time to continue the conversation than at last week's debate, giving Obama and Romney plenty of time to shift the conversation.

But while there will be easy pivots to the economy, "don't underestimate the pull of safety and security in the minds of American voters," added Crowley, host of CNN's "State of the Union."

"There is no issue closer to home and hearth than the safety and security of your family. That is the most basic question the federal government has to answer."

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5. Will there be fireworks?

Last week's debate was extremely combative. It seemed at times that the two candidates came close to clashing physically.

But neither man will have the ability to move this time around, seated with moderator Schieffer at a small table. So will it be a more civil discussion at this final face-off?

"The combination of the candidates seated at a table very close together and the extended discussion phase will really enable an opportunity for the candidates to have a deep discussion on the six topics, and we think it will be a great opportunity for exchange between the candidates," said Peter Eyre, a senior adviser to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

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Translation: Things could get testy but don't count on the kind of clashes we saw last week.

There was plenty of heated rhetoric at the vice presidential debate, where Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, also sat around a table.

"You saw some flashes from Ryan, but really the fireworks were from the vice president. That's Biden being Biden. But Obama's not Biden," Crowley said.

And the subject matter may also temper the discussion a bit.

"I don't think it will be as frequently combative as the last debate because what people want from their commander in chief is clear-eyed determination," Crowley added. "The subject matter along with the optics of sitting around a table in a kind of chummier situation lends itself to fewer fireworks than we saw at previous debate."

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