– The eyes of the world were on South Florida on Monday evening as issues of the world — foreign and military policy — took center stage in a presidential campaign that's been dominated, until now, by the economy.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney started sparring from the moment they took the debate stage at Lynn University — where each was hoping to close the sale with American voters two weeks before Election Day in a contest that polls show is exceedingly tight in Florida and other battleground states.
Within the first few minutes, the jabs and zingers were flying.
"I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership of Al-Qaida, but we can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said.
Obama's comeback included ridiculing Romney for his campaign-season assertion that Russia is America's top geopolitical threat. "The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But, governor, when it comes to our foreign policy you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama said.
Romney's retort: "Attacking me is not an agenda."
Romney complained that the Navy is smaller than it's been any time since 1927 and the Air Force is older and smaller than it's been since it was founded in 1947. He promised to increase military spending.
Obama mocked Romney's claims, saying, "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed."
Israel — one of the most important issues to many in South Florida because of this area's large and politically active Jewish population — got lots of attention from the candidates. It was also a backdrop for broader discussions about the Middle East, particularly the Arab Spring and the threat Israel faces from Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
Both candidates pledged intense support for Israel, but neither directly answered a question about whether he'd declare that an attack on Israel is tantamount to an attack on the U.S.
"Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in our region, and if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel," Obama said.
Romney said he wanted "to underscore the same point the president made. If I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States we will stand with Israel. And if Israel is attacked, we have their back. Not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily."
Obama also said he would not permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon, and said he's launched "crippling sanctions" to stop that nation's efforts. Romney said he supports sanctions, but that more needs to be done to isolate the country. He'd tighten sanctions and increase diplomatic pressure.
The debate site was 266 miles from Cuba in a state where Cuban-Americans are a pivotal voting bloc — more than two-thirds of the Cubans living in the U.S. live in Miami-Dade County — that generally supports Republican candidates — and where Fidel Castro once again has been subject of rumors that he's near death. But Cuba came up only when moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News noted the debate was taking place on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy revealing the presence of missiles in the island nation that brought the region to the brink of nuclear war.
Other international issues near and dear to South Floridians weren't on the agenda either: immigration and border security and Venezuela, the country run by the recently re-elected President Hugo Chavez, who is despised by many people who've fled the nation and taken up residence in South Florida. Florida is home to more than 102,000 Venezuelans, according to the 2010 Census.
In their last chance to sell their views directly to tens of millions of Americans, Obama and Romney veered off foreign policy and barraged each other with attacks.
In his closing statement, the president talked about making education a higher priority for government, investing in alternative energy and higher taxes on the wealthy.
"I have got a different vision for America," Obama said, comparing his approach to Romney's. "I want to build on our strengths. … After a decade of war, we have to do some nation-building at home."
Romney, in his closing remarks, maintained that he has the experience needed to get the economy going. He said he could balance the budget and improve bipartisanship in Washington.