Barack Obama and Mitt Romney dove into the foreign policy weeds Saturday in preparation for their final debate, dropping off the campaign trail and dispatching their running mates to court voters in battleground states.
The debate, which focuses on international affairs, will be the final chance for each to lay out his policy platforms and engage in verbal jousting in front of tens of millions of TV viewers just 15 days before voters head to the polls.
With both sides conceding that the race to Nov. 6 will go down to the wire, and amid a consensus that each candidate won one of the previous two debates, the stakes for Monday’s clash are enormous.
And just as they study up on the particulars of U.S. policy about the Middle East, China and Russia, the New York Times reported a possible breakthrough on talks with Iran – a report quickly squelched by the White House.
Citing unnamed administration officials, The New York Times reported that Iranian officials had agreed to direct U.S.-Iran talks over Tehran’s nuclear program, after years of secret talks between the two sides.
The Iranians insisted that such negotiations wait until after the U.S. election, when they will know who the next president will be, the report said.
The White House swiftly denied any deal had been reached, saying it was still working on a “diplomatic solution.”
“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
The Times story broke just as the two U.S. candidates were hunkered down for a weekend of debate prep – the president opting for Camp David’s seclusion and Mr. Romney jetting to the showdown site in Florida.
Mr. Obama was gathering his team at the remote presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
Mr. Romney opted for a bit of sun, heading to Boca Raton where he is spending the weekend at a beach-side resort with top strategists and Senator Rob Portman, who plays Mr. Obama in mock debates.
The challenger also took the opportunity to hit up wealthy donors one last time. Mr. Romney attended his final fundraising event of the campaign Saturday in Palm Beach, an aide said.
Mr. Obama attended his final fundraiser earlier this month.
With the candidates off the trail, it was up to their deputies to sway voters.
Vice President Joe Biden was in Orlando, Fla., where he ducked into a campaign field office to energize volunteers before heading to an event in St. Augustine.
“We wanted to come to the epicenter of the epicenter,” Mr. Biden said, mindful that the Orlando-Tampa corridor is the most vital region of the largest swing state of all.
“You guys produce, we win Florida,” Mr. Biden said. “We win Florida, this is all history, man.”
The Republican ticket is placing a similar premium on the Sunshine State. Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan shared the stage Friday at a rally in Daytona Beach.
Mr. Ryan then headed to a campaign stop Saturday near Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, a state that had been seen as a sure bet for Mr. Obama but where Mr. Romney has made recent inroads.
Mr. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and creator of a controversial budget plan that envisions dramatic cuts to federal spending, told a crowd in Moon Township that America could no longer endure an outsized government.
“Look, the choice is this: Do we limit the size of our government, or do we limit the growth of our economy?” he said. “Mitt Romney and I believe we need to limit government so our economy can grow.”
Mr. Obama has caught flak from Republicans – as well as from Democrats driven to near-panic over the President’s polls slide in recent weeks – for not articulating a clear vision for the next four years.
For their part, Obama supporters attack Mr. Romney for not revealing details of which loopholes or deductions he would close or end in order to pay for his planned 20 per cent tax cut.
Just over two weeks remain and polls show the candidates neck and neck, with battlegrounds Florida, Ohio and Virginia proving crucial.
Mr. Obama won all three in 2008, but as a measure of the tightness of this year’s contest, they are all up for grabs, with Florida leaning toward Mr. Romney, Virginia a tie, and Ohio leaning toward Mr. Obama, according to widely-read poll averages by RealClearPolitics.
The website’s national poll of polls on Saturday showed an exact dead heat: 47.1 per cent support for each candidate.
Monday’s showdown will focus on foreign affairs, which has been seen as Mr. Obama’s strong suit thanks to his withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and his ordering the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden.
But Mr. Romney’s camp has hammered the president on his handling of the Middle East, accusing him of neglecting ally Israel and failing to stem Iran’s nuclear drive.