Image: campaign signs
Jewel Samad  /  AFP - Getty Images
Electoral placards supporting President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are seen near Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 20, 2012, where the third and final presidential debate will be hosted on October 22.
NBC News
updated 10/22/2012 1:37:49 PM ET 2012-10-22T17:37:49

With fifteen days left in a deadlocked presidential contest, ninety minutes on Monday night could prove pivotal.

When President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney meet in their third debate tonight in Boca Raton, Fla., it will be their final chance to show a side-by-side comparison to the millions of Americans in an election that appears to be teetering delicately in the balance. The candidates have faced off primarily over domestic issues in their previous two encounters but tonight’s debate, moderated by CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, is supposed to focus on foreign policy and the next president’s role as Commander-in-Chief.

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With the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing a race in which Romney and Obama are tied at 47 percent among likely voters, a verbal miscue or a fumble on the details of extremely complex world affairs issues could be calamitous.

While the campaign will turn to the hand-to-hand combat over key states and counties for the next two weeks, it’s unlikely either candidate will have another opportunity to reach as many voters as they will during Monday’s debate.

Even now, with the election two weeks from Tuesday and with millions of early ballots already cast, there’s still a chance that some wavering voters in hotly contested places such as Mason City, Iowa and Green Bay, Wisconsin – both of which were among the nation’s top ten media markets for campaign ads last week – haven’t yet made their choice.

And over the weekend there was some new information for those wavering voters to ponder: a report from the New York Times on Saturday that the Obama administration and the Iranian government had agreed to sit down for direct bilateral negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

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This wasn’t quite an “October surprise” of the magnitude that strategists fear will tip an election, partly because Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor quickly said, “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections.” But Vietor added that Obama has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

It is unclear whether voters see the prospect of a U.S. military strike against Iran in order to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons as real and imminent possibility.

But it has been clear for weeks that the Obama campaign is painting Romney as a risk too big for Americans to take, a man who might get the United States into another war.

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In his debate with GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, Vice President Joe Biden hammered the point repeatedly. Obama, he said “has led with a steady hand and clear vision. Governor Romney, the opposite. The last thing we need now is another war….” And in case any viewer might have missed the point, Biden circled back later and asked Ryan point-blank: “You're going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?”

Obama strategist David Axelrod pressed that line of attack Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press charging that Romney was “reckless” and prone to undiplomatic gaffes.

In a new television ad Monday the Obama campaign touted the “Obama as peacemaker” theme referring to “a decade of war that cost us dearly” and arguing that “President Obama ended the Iraq war” while Romney was in favor on continuing to station U.S. troops there.

But the Romney camp is painting Obama as the one who is unreliable and a risk taker. Ryan charged in Colorado Springs, Colo. Sunday that Obama is too eager to cut a deal with the Russians: “When you see your president whispering to the president of Russia, when he thinks no one is listening, that he’ll have more flexibility on missile defense, it begs the question: how much more does he want to give away?”

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And it seems likely that in Monday night’s debate, Romney will again bring up the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11. Rather than repeating the semantic or chronological arguments from last week’s debate about whether Obama labeled the event in Benghazi a terrorist attack, or how promptly he did so, Romney might switch to simply asking the question: How did this happen?

“I’m sure it’s going to be a topic tonight,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “But I think he (Obama) will say, ‘Look, this investigation is ongoing. We are working it hard, we want to get to the bottom of what happened so that we can make sure it never happens again, but we can also bring those who killed four American people to justice.”

Whether bringing those who killed the Americans in Benghazi to justice will happen before Election Day is a potentially significant strategic question.

On foreign affairs, a plurality of poll respondents in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy but his approval number has dropped from 54 percent on the August survey to 49 percent.

Asked whether they thought that Obama would be better or Romney would be better “in the strong leadership qualities needed to be president,” poll respondents were evenly divided, with 41 percent favoring each man and 15 percent agreeing that both men had the requisite leadership qualities for the presidency. The fact that Americans now see Romney as Obama’s equal in this sense suggests that Romney’s strategy in the first two debates of not being deferential to Obama – in some cases scolding him and interrupting him -- may be working to change voters’ perceptions.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that 52 percent disapproved of the job Obama is doing in handling the economy.  His rating on that question has been negative since June of 2010.

And by a four-point margin, the poll found that more voters agreed with the idea that Romney is “better prepared to create jobs and improve the economy over the next four years,” which suggests that in Monday night’s faceoff it would be to Romney’s advantage to turn the discussion about foreign policy into a dialogue about the stagnant economy and the near record-high level of long-term unemployment.

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With two new state polls showing Obama with a diminishing but still five-point lead in Ohio and holding a five-point lead in Pennsylvania, a state the Romney strategists have said they might try to put in play,  Obama will be going Wednesday to Democratic voting bastions in competitive states: Davenport, Iowa, followed by Denver and Las Vegas. Iowa and Nevada each have 6 electoral votes, Colorado has 9.

And in something of a surprise, his campaign also announced Monday that Obama will return next weekend to a state with only 4 electoral votes but which apparently isn’t yet secure for the president: New Hampshire, which last went Republican in 2000 and which Obama won by more than 10 percentage points in 2008.

On Sunday, campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Ryan appealed to Republican activists to grasp just how big the 6 electoral votes in Iowa and the 10 next door in Wisconsin are this year.

“As a next-door neighbor, as a Wisconsinite, I gotta tell ya,” Ryan said. “We have a big responsibility. A handful of states will determine not just who’s going to be the next president for four more years, Iowa and a couple of other states may very well determine what kind of country we’re going to be and what kind of country we’re going to have for a generation,” he said.

Ryan spent Sunday in Iowa and Colorado. On Tuesday he and Romney will be whipping up Republican enthusiasm at a rally in Henderson, Nevada.

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