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The Libya exchange

For my money, the most dramatic moment of Tuesday night's presidential debate came when one of the "undecided voters" brought up the issue of Libya, which ought to have been a tough moment for the president. Here's the video, and here's how it went down on paper:

QUESTION: We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans.

Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?

OBAMA: Well, let me first of all talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation. And these aren't just representatives of the United States, they are my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm's way. I know these folks and I know their families. So nobody is more concerned about their safety and security than I am.

So as soon as we found out that the Benghazi consulate was being overrun, I was on the phone with my national security team and I gave them three instructions.

Number one, beef up our security and procedures, not just in Libya, but at every embassy and consulate in the region.

Number two, investigate exactly what happened, regardless of where the facts lead us, to make sure folks are held accountable and it doesn't happen again.

And number three, we are going to find out who did this and we're going to hunt them down, because one of the things that I've said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them.

OBAMA: Now Governor Romney had a very different response. While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that's not how a commander in chief operates. You don't turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it's happening. And people -- not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I've made. But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I'd end the war in Libya -- in -- in Iraq, and I did.

I said that we'd go after al-Qaeda and bin Laden, we have. I said we'd transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security, that's what I'm doing. And when it comes to this issue, when I say that we are going to find out exactly what happened, everybody will be held accountable. And I am ultimately responsible for what's taking place there because these are my folks, and I'm the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home. You know that I mean what I say.

CROWLEY: Mr. President, I'm going to move us along. Governor?

ROMNEY: Thank you Kerry for your question, it's an important one. And -- and I -- I think the president just said correctly that the buck does stop at his desk and -- and he takes responsibility for -- for that -- for the failure in providing those security resources, and -- and those terrible things may well happen from time to time. I -- I'm -- I feel very deeply sympathetic for the families of those who lost loved ones. And today there's a memorial service for one of those that was lost in this tragedy. We -- we think of their families and care for them deeply. There were other issues associated with this -- with this tragedy. There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration, or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.

ROMNEY: And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn't know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn't we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could we have not known?

But I find more troubling than this, that on -- on the day following the assassination of the United States ambassador, the first time that's happened since 1979, when -- when we have four Americans killed there, when apparently we didn't know what happened, that the president, the day after that happened, flies to Las Vegas for a political fund-raiser, then the next day to Colorado for another event, other political event.

I think these -- these actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance and perhaps even material significance in that you'd hope that during that time we could call in the people who were actually eyewitnesses. We've read their accounts now about what happened. It was very clear this was not a demonstration. This was an attack by terrorists.

And this calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East. Look what's happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and -- and Israel, the president said that -- that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel.

We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria -- Syria's not just a tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic -- strategically significant player for America.

The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and -- and -- and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.

CROWLEY: Because we're -- we're closing in, I want to still get a lot of people in. I want to ask you something, Mr. President, and then have the governor just quickly.

Your secretary of state, as I'm sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?

OBAMA: Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I'm the president and I'm always responsible, and that's why nobody's more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.

The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.

And then a few days later, I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families.

And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as Commander in Chief.

And then it all started to go downhill for Mitt Romney:

CROWLEY: Governor, if you want to...

ROMNEY: Yes, I -- I...

CROWLEY: ... quickly to this please.

ROMNEY: I -- I think interesting the president just said something which -- which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.

OBAMA: That's what I said.

ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.

It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed governor.

ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CROWLEY: It -- it -- it -- he did in fact, sir. So let me -- let me call it an act of terror...

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

CROWLEY: He -- he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.

ROMNEY: This -- the administration -- the administration indicated this was a reaction to a video and was a spontaneous reaction.

CROWLEY: It did.

ROMNEY: It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group. And to suggest -- am I incorrect in that regard, on Sunday, the -- your secretary --

OBAMA: Candy?

ROMNEY: Excuse me. The ambassador of the United Nations went on the Sunday television shows and spoke about how --

OBAMA: Candy, I'm --

ROMNEY: -- this was a spontaneous --

CROWLEY: Mr. President, let me --

OBAMA: I'm happy to have a longer conversation --

CROWLEY: I know you --

OBAMA: -- about foreign policy.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. But I want to -- I want to move you on and also --

OBAMA: OK. I'm happy to do that, too.

Passport

What's the foreign policy of independent voters?

A growing body of research may suggest that there are very few truly undecided voters still out there, and that their role in deciding elections is exaggerated. But the Gallup polling firm apparently believes it's tracked down 80 politically uncommitted Long Islanders to compose the audience at tonight's town hall-style presidential debate, which will touch on a mix of foreign and domestic policy issues. All this raises the question: What's the foreign policy of undecided voters?

I haven't come across a study on this topic specifically, but a national poll released by the Foreign Policy Initiative late last month offers some clues. Here's a quick look at the ways self-identified independents responded to the organization's questions:

  • Nearly 60 percent believe the United States is headed down the wrong track
  • 49 percent say the economy is their top voting concern; only 5 percent say national security is
  • Roughly 18 percent identify terrorists as the biggest threat to American national security interests, making it the most popular choice among the group, and 43 percent think the threat of terrorism on American soil has increased since 9/11  
  • 48 percent cite Iran as the country that poses the most danger to American national security interests
  • Roughly 57 percent favor preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons even if that means taking U.S. military action against Tehran -- placing independents between Democrats (49 percent) and Republicans (79 percent) 
  • Independents are pretty much evenly split on whether the United States should maintain its troop presence in Afghanistan to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists or withdraw U.S. forces regardless of whether Afghan security forces are prepared to security the country; Republicans favor keeping troops in the country while Democrats favor withdrawal
  • Around 65 percent feel the United States should work with its allies to establish a no-fly zone in Syria
  • 50 percent think we're spending the right amount of money on national defense, putting independents at odds with Democrats (who are more likely to support reductions) and Republicans (who are more likely to support increases)
  • Nearly 60 percent believe foreign aid is a waste, again placing independents between Democrats (42 percent) and Republicans (63 percent), but nearly three out of four would support foreign assistance if there was a system to ensure that the aid was used effectively
  • More than 50 percent have an unfavorable view of China and just under 50 percent have an unfavorable view of Russia; more than 60 percent have an unfavorable view of Egypt
  • 72 percent have a favorable view of Israel
  • 64 percent think trade between the United States and foreign countries is a good thing
  • Roughly 87 percent believe America is a force for good in the world and more than 90 percent say it is important for the United States to play a significant role in world affairs

Independents, of course, are not necessarily synonymous with undecided voters (according to the FPI poll, more than 40 percent of independents report that they're either voting for Obama or leaning toward doing so, and just under 40 percent say the same about Romney).

But if you track another, significantly smaller group in the survey -- those who identify as "firm undecideds" when it comes to the election -- on the issues listed above, you'll find the same broad trends. The portrait of the independent voter that emerges -- focused primarily on the economy, wary of tinkering with defense spending, relatively hawkish on Iran and Syria, concerned about the rise of China, ambivalent on Afghanistan, skeptical of foreign aid, pessimistic about the direction of the country but bullish on America's global leadership -- is worth keeping in mind as you watch tonight's debate.

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