Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney tangle over foreign policy on Monday night in their final presidential debate, with both candidates still looking for a breakout moment in a deadlocked White House campaign two weeks before Election Day.

Polls show Mr. Obama with a small advantage in voter perceptions about which candidate is best prepared to handle U.S. foreign policy in chaotic world. Mr. Romney will do his best in the 90-minute debate in Florida to minimize the president’s accomplishments and win the support of the small slice of undecided voters among the millions of Americans who will be watching.

The former Massachusetts governor has been hitting Mr. Obama hard on the administration’s changing explanations of what happened in last month’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where militants killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The Syria violence, Iran-Israel tensions, China, terrorism and the war winding down in Afghanistan were expected to come up in Monday’s final debate.

As the Nov. 6 vote approaches, 41 of the 50 U.S. states are essentially already decided, and the candidates are fighting over the remaining nine battleground states, including the critical Ohio and Florida.

The battleground states assume outsized importance because the presidency is decided in state-by-state contests, not by a national popular vote. The system can lead to a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the presidency, as former Vice President Al Gore did in 2000.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney tied, with both candidates backed by 47 per cent of likely voters nationwide.

The poll was conducted after the second presidential debate last Tuesday that Mr. Obama was seen as winning after a poor performance in the first debate on Oct. 3. In the last such poll before the presidential debates began, the president held a three-point lead over Mr. Romney, 49 per cent to 46 per cent.

Among the wider pool of all registered voters in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney by five points, 49 per cent to 44 per cent. Mr. Romney is ahead among men (53 per cent to 43 per cent), and Mr. Obama leads among women (51 per cent to 43 per cent).

With early and absentee voting already under way in many battleground states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa, the tight poll results indicate that the race could be decided by which campaign is best at getting supporters to the voting booth.

In addition to the political fight over the Obama administration’s handling of the Libya attack, reports flashed around Washington over the weekend about developments in the administration’s efforts to end Iran’s suspected drive to build a nuclear weapon. The White House denied a New York Times report that there was an agreement in principle for bilateral talks with Tehran after the election. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, however, said the administration had repeatedly expressed its willingness for such talks.

Iran’s economy is suffering under international sanctions aimed at convincing the Islamic Republic to stop uranium enrichment, a precursor to creating a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama has said if diplomacy and sanctions fail, he was ready to use military action. So has Romney, although he has said U.S. threats should be more robust.

Mr. Romney on Sunday refused to say if he would be open to one-on-one talks with Iran if elected. He was asked about Iran while officiating a coin toss at a football game on a Florida beach between reporters and his senior campaign aides. Mr. Romney, who was taking a break from debate preparations, also declined to say how he was feeling about Monday’s debate or the latest polling.

Mr. Obama has ranked well with the public on his handling of international issues and in fighting terrorism, especially after the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But the administration’s response to the Libya attack and questions over security at the Benghazi consulate have given Mr. Romney an issue to question Obama’s foreign policy leadership.

The economy and other domestic issues remain the main focus of most voters and both campaigns.

Mr. Romney claims Mr. Obama has failed to tell Americans what he would do with a second four-year term. Mr. Obama insists that Romney is hiding details of his much-promoted plan to cut federal income tax rates. Mr. Obama says Mr. Romney can’t make all the tax cuts he has proposed without adding to the deficit or shifting more of the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class.

Mr. Romney also has vowed to repeal the president’s health care reforms, but Mr. Obama says Mr. Romney has failed to say what he would do to replace the law which would provide health insurance to 30 million Americans who now have no coverage.

The Obama campaign has also stressed that it’s hard to predict what Mr. Romney might do as president, since he has changed his positions on many issues.

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