Despite a strong second debate, President Barack Obama failed to reverse the damage he did to his campaign during his first encounter against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, setting the stage for a bitter slugfest over Iran and Libya in their final televised duel.
The debate on foreign policy, to be held Monday night in Florida, comes as a major poll taken in the wake of last week's town-hall forum showed that Mr. Obama has been unable to regain the ground he lost to Mr. Romney after their first debate on Oct. 3. And it follows a weekend report heralding potential post-election negotiations between the United States and Iran to avert a military showdown over Iran's nuclear program.
The Obama administration denied the New York Times report, which said the two countries had "agreed in principle" to one-on-one talks after the election. But it did not dispute the article's suggestion that a weakened Iran is looking for relief from crippling sanctions, noting that the White House remains "prepared to meet bilaterally."
The report and its timing create tactical challenges for both candidates. While Mr. Obama can argue that his push for a diplomatic solution is working, Republicans could portray the offer of talks as merely a stalling tactic by the Iranian regime. They already accuse Mr. Obama of squandering the first part of his term hoping for negotiations while Iran continued to make progress toward building a nuclear bomb.
If he rejects renewed diplomatic efforts, however, Mr. Romney risks appearing too hawkish for war-weary American voters. The Republican nominee has already sided with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in drawing a more restrictive "red line" on Iran's nuclear program than Mr. Obama. While the President insists the United States will stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Romney say Iran must not be allowed to possess "nuclear weapons capability."
While Iran's nuclear program will put both candidates on the spot in Monday's debate, Mr. Obama will find himself alone on the defensive over his administration's handling of last month's terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Mr. Obama has yet to explain why requests for increased security at the consulate were not met prior to the attack. Nor has he explained why his administration insisted for days that the Sept. 11 assault was a "spontaneous response" that grew out of protests over an anti-Muslim video, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary soon afterward.
In last week's town-hall debate, Mr. Obama tried to end the controversy by saying he called the attack an "act of terror" the day after it occurred. But while he used those words on Sept. 12, it is not clear he was referring specifically to the Benghazi attack. Two days later, his press secretary said there was "no evidence" of a preplanned attack.
Was the White House reluctant to raise the spectre of terrorism to protect Mr. Obama's re-election chances? Accusations of a "cover up" are growing louder on Fox News and elsewhere as Republicans seize on one of the President's rare vulnerabilities on the foreign policy file. Despite overseeing the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama suddenly finds his tough-on-terrorism reputation up for re-evaluation.
The stakes are sky-high for both candidates in the final debate of the campaign following the release Sunday of a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing them tied, each with the support of 47 per cent of likely voters. The poll, conducted after last week's debate, was noteworthy because it marked the first time Mr. Romney had pulled even with Mr. Obama in an NBC survey this year. It also showed Mr. Obama's advance among women shrinking to eight percentage points and Mr. Romney leading among men by 10 points.
Statistical models continue to suggest Mr. Obama's odds of re-election are high, based on his slim advance in critical swing states including Ohio. But most polls also show that the President has failed to reach the critical 50 per cent mark among likely voters, while Mr. Romney is gaining everywhere and is now ahead in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
The race "is very close and competitive and people who think otherwise are fooling themselves," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said in an interview. "A second debate with a narrow win by the incumbent cannot recover the ground lost by a substantial defeat in the first, most-watched debate."