WASHINGTON Weeks ago, it sounded like a mismatch.
The final presidential debate would focus on foreign policy with a sitting president who had overseen the death of Osama bin Laden pitted against a one-term governor so new to diplomatic thinking that hed managed to offend a good chunk of Britain during a brief trip this summer.
But Monday nights debate doesnt look like a mismatch anymore.
Instead, when President Barack Obama meets Republican challenger Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Fla., he will face an opponent who has already made up tremendous ground on the subject by criticizing Obama as weak, waffling and distracted by his re-election goals.
On Monday, the two candidates will share a stage for the last time. The race could not be closer: On Sunday, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the candidates tied, each with 47 percent of likely voters. Before the debates began, Obama led the same poll by three points.
In this debate, Obama could face the opposite of the situation many envisioned weeks before. Instead of lending him credibility, his commander-in-chief role could make him more vulnerable, opening Obama to questions about a range of unresolved crises.
Criticism of Libya attacks
Romney is likely to renew criticism of the Obama administrations reaction to a Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans at a mission in Benghazi, Libya. Obama is also likely to face questions about the civil war in Syria and a recent assassination in Lebanon.
Romneys allies are raising questions about the administrations shifting explanations of the Benghazi attack and the failure to offer greater security for American workers there.
In an Internet ad released last week, the super PAC American Crossroads asked: What did the president know and when did he know it?
Obama may try, again, to portray Romney as politically calculating for using the fatal attack to score points. He may seek to make the case that Romney is unschooled in the sophisticated intelligence provided to presidents or the heavy decisions expected of them.
Intersection of policy, economy
Beyond Libya, each candidate has articulated a very different role for America in the world, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined the U.S. presence overseas for a decade are either finished or fading fast.
The challenge for Obama and Romney will likely be explaining their foreign policy priorities in ways that resonate with voters preoccupied with economic issues and a growing national debt that undermines the countrys ability to act abroad.
China heads the list of issues that straddle foreign and domestic concerns, and both candidates are likely to steer discussion of the countrys rising economic influence to the American economy.
Last week, Romney called China a cheater and said that on the first day of his administration he would brand China a currency manipulator.
Obama claimed last week that he has put unprecedented trade pressure on China, although he has stopped short of the steps taken by the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who did designate China a currency manipulator.
China denies it manipulates its currency for a trade advantage, although Chinas central bank nudged the yuan higher against the dollar following last weeks debate.
Both candidates are also likely to address Europes debt crisis, a drag on the already precarious U.S. economic recovery. Europes economic malaise is increasingly seen as a U.S. national security problem.
Debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News may ask Romney about his contention earlier this year that Russia is the United States No. 1 geopolitical foe.
Russia bristled at his pledge that if elected he would beef up a missile-defense shield in Europe.
Dealing with Syria, Israel, Iran
On Syria, Obama is likely to denounce President Bashar Assad, who still counts on Russian support, but pledge no new U.S. help to oust him.
Romney has said Obama has been too timid in dealing with Assad, while being too hard on Israel when it comes to talking peace with the Palestinians. And Romney has endorsed arming the Syrian rebels.
Obama has declined to take that step, arguing that heavier weapons could inflame a civil war already spilling its borders and end up in the hands of rebels the United States knows little about. The United States is providing communications gear and other logistical and humanitarian help, short of lethal aid.
Romneys policy on Iran appears very similar to Obamas in substance. Romney has criticized Obama for failing to curtail Irans nuclear enrichment program, but he has favored the same set of international sanctions that Obama has secured.
Both Obama and Romney say Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, something Irans leadership denies pursuing. But Romney has aligned himself more closely with Israels shorter timeline for acting against it.