BOCA RATON, Florida - White House rivals Barack Obama and Mitt Romney battled on Monday to see who could hug Israel closest to his heart and who could take the toughest rhetorical stance against Iran.
President Obama's Republican challenger came to the pair's last debate determined to score points against the Democratic incumbent by accusing him of offering weakness to allies and feeble opposition to America's foes.
But with both candidates essentially promising the same combination of loyalty to Israel combined with sanctions and a last-resort military threat to deter Iran's alleged plan to build nuclear arms, they fell back on rhetoric.
"We have to also stand by our allies. I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate," Romney declared, noting that Obama had not visited Israel as a president.
Romney said Obama had "wasted four years" by allowing Iran to operate nuclear centrifuges unhindered, and repeated his charge that the incumbent had toured the Muslim world to "apologize" for US values he should have defended.
"The reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region," he said
"You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators," he said.
As Romney spoke, Obama shifted forward in his seat, twisting his pen in his hands and staring intently. His response was testy.
"Let me respond. You know, if we're going to talk about trips that we've taken, you know, when I was a candidate for office, (the) first trip I took was to visit our troops," he said.
"And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.
"And then I went down to the border town of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas," he said, recalling that his administration had helped fund Israel's new "Iron Dome" missile defense system.
Obama insisted the sanctions the international community has imposed on Iran to slow its nuclear drive have been the toughest possible, and accused Romney of recklessly threatening war when economic pressure might yet bear fruit.
"It is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles," Obama said.
Romney, however, was nimble -- aligning his positions closer with Obama's than ever before, and striking only at generalities.
For example, he praised Obama's decision to order the raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but warned that the new "tumult" in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring called for a broader strategy.
"We're going to have to do more than just going after leaders and killing bad guys, important as that is," Romney said.
"We're also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.
"You look at the record of the last four years and say: 'Is Iran closer to a bomb?' Yes. 'Is the Middle East in tumult?' Yes," he said.
"Is Al-Qaeda on the run, on its heels? No. Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No."
Obama accused Romney of continually shifting his stance, saying challenges in the Middle East required a "strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."
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