US Elections: The gloves don't quite come off in the third and final debate on foreign policy between Barack Obama, the president, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. With video
US elections: Obama scores win over Romney in foreign policy debate
WASHINGTON // After the surprises and fireworks of the first two US presidential debates, the third and final head-to-head contest was a relatively sedate affair.
In fact there was far more agreement than disagreement when Barack Obama, the incumbent US president, and Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, met last night at Lynn University in Florida to debate foreign policy.
Mr Obama won the debate, according to CNN's snap poll, 48 to 40 per cent. But both candidates will likely feel relatively happy with their performances.
Mr Obama needed another strong debate to leave his vapid showing in the first tangle as far behind him as possible. He delivered. He was articulate and aggressive, attacking Mr Romney at every turn and defending his record with gusto.
But Mr Romney's main priority was simply to look like someone who could be trusted with the keys to the world's greatest armoury. He too succeeded. He made no major gaffes and was sure to emphasise that he had no intention of leading America into another war.
In doing so, however, he left Americans with very little to differentiate the two candidates on foreign policy.
They both said they would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons but that military action should be a last resort, reached only once diplomacy and "crippling" sanctions had been exhausted.
They both said China could be a valuable partner on the global stage, but that the country first has to "play by the rules".
They both made bows to Israel, and also thought that America had to "stand on the side of democracy" when it came to the revolts of the Arab Spring.
On Syria, neither supported direct US military involvement, and both vowed to strengthen the Syrian opposition without arming radicals among the rebels.
There were disagreements: Mr Romney insisted that the US should spend more on the military, and vowed again to expand the navy.
Mr Obama said US military spending did not need to increase and that while it was true that America's navy had fewer ships than early last century, the military also had "fewer horses and bayonets".
Mr Romney criticised Mr Obama for relying too much on force and not having a comprehensive development strategy to get the Muslim world to "reject extremism on its own".
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Mr Romney said, unexpectedly assuming the mantle of the peace candidate. "We must have a comprehensive strategy."
Mr Romney was clearly keen to come across as the opposite of the neoconservative foreign policy hawk that Democrats have been keen to paint him. And the policies he advocated on Monday night were not the "wrong and reckless" policies that Mr Obama at one point accused him of holding.
But they were also not very different from current US policy, a point Mr Obama happily made.
"What you just heard Governor Romney say is that he doesn't have different ideas," Mr Obama said, during the segment of the 90-minute debate devoted to Syria.
In fact, sparks only really flew when the two managed to turn the debate onto domestic issues, which they were keen to do at every opportunity. Mr Obama brought an angry denial out of Mr Romney when he accused him of being willing to allow the US auto industry to go under, ostensibly in answer to a question on China.
Both said America's strength in the world depended on a strong US economy, giving Mr Romney a chance to attack Mr Obama on his job creation record and Mr Obama a chance to take Mr Romney to task for not having a coherent plan for balancing the budget.
And Mr Obama managed to get back to a running theme of the campaign, that he inherited a mess and has managed as best as possible.
He criticised the "experiments" in nation building America had engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, saying it was instead time to do some "nation building here at home".
With two weeks left until election day, last night's debate was the last chance for the candidates to make their pitch to millions of Americans. And if the debate showed anything it was that domestic US issues are far more important than foreign policy in this election.
Polls show a dead heat. Broad agreement on foreign policy is unlikely to change that.