Mondays third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney had a lot riding on foreign policy in a deadlocked race.
Yet what was supposed to be a debate on foreign policy repeatedly wandered back to the domestic issues of the first two debates, said three Charlotte-area college professors who are experts on foreign relations.
Its not surprising that the debate kept coming back to domestic politics, but it is frustrating, said Maggie Commins, who teaches political science at Queens University of Charlotte.
When they did talk foreign policy issues in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Israel and Iran, there seemed to be little difference between the two, Commins said. Perhaps this lack of real difference is the reason both reverted to domestic policy areas in which there are some differences.
Sitting presidents normally go into foreign policy debates with powerful built-in advantages, said Chris Alexander, director of the Dean Rusk International Relations Program at Davidson College. This person has been the commander in chief. He knows the issues. He knows the lingo. He knows the names.
Alexander thought Obama won the debate by touting his administrations Middle East record, which had Romney conceding that the Obama administrations basic strategy was essentially sound.
Neither candidate blew it, he said, but Romney failed to offer a different vision or tactical approach to any of the critical issues.
Obama didnt hold up a compelling new vision either, but he didnt need to do that as much as Romney, Alexander said.
The president, Commins said, did a better job of projecting confidence and knowledge.
His command of the issues was strong, she said. Both reverted to their past responses too often, but Gov. Romney did not succeed in portraying any significant differences between his views and the presidents.
Yet foreign policy is not a primary issue for voters particularly this year.
A Gallup poll released Monday showed foreign aid and an overseas focus ranked sixth, with education and ethical, moral and family decline among issues most important to Americans. All were far below the economy and unemployment.
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars ranked below foreign aid, with 3 percent saying they are important, down significantly from the 2004 and 2008 elections.
Typically foreign policy doesnt a play a huge role in elections, unless youve got an Iranian hostage crisis (like in 1979) or a war going on, Commins said. It should matter to voters. Its the area where the president has the most independent authority. A president can start wars and send U.S. troops into battle on his own.
The three said Obama effectively highlighted his foreign affairs achievements: the killing of Osama bin Laden, diluting al-Qaedas top leadership, repairing U.S. relations with several European and Middle Eastern countries, ending the Iraq war and setting a date to pull out of Afghanistan.
The president was good at using Romneys past wrong-headed foreign policy statements, said Jurgen Buchenau, who teaches Latin American history and Mexican foreign relations at UNC Charlotte.
He took advantage of his incumbency to set the agenda for the debate Romney could not help but agree with Obamas position, Buchenau said.
The candidates, he said, differed little on several issues, including support for Israel and sanctions on Iran.
There are only semantic differences between the candidates on these two issues, Buchenau said. Obama said the governor says the same things I do, but he says them louder.