Will Final Obama-Romney Debate Be a Game Changer?
Senior Editor, CNBC
With two debates down — and each side able to claim a victory — the final showdown on Monday between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be the last major opportunity for each candidate to sway millions of voters at once.
With the polls showing razor-thin margins in the race, the debate at 9 p.m. EDT in Boca Raton, Fla., comes only 15 days before the Nov. 6 election. (Read More: Romney Still Trails Obama in 2 Key Swing States: Polls)
This faceoff has the best chance of all three debates for a big "gotcha" moment that many people have been waiting for.
"Because the focus of the debate is solely on foreign policy, it might be the least predictable in terms of what they say," said Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
"Foreign policy is always a complex topic, and the chance to make a mistake is greater here than on other subject."
Think President Gerald Ford's infamous gaffe "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in his 1976 debate against Jimmy Carter.
Romney and Obama touched on foreign policy during the town hall style debate at Hofstra University, specifically the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But Monday's contest will give voters the clearest view yet as to who they think is the better leader on global issues, said Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
"If you're not sure as a voter who is best to be commander in chief, here's your opportunity," he said. "Each of them will get up there and try to say, 'I can run the country's overseas policies better than the other guy.' It will probably come down to who's more confident, Obama or Romney."
Besides Libya, other foreign policy issues will likely include the ongoing violence in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, China's economic programs, as well as Iran's nuclear program.
"These are all tricky questions for both of them but especially for Romney because he doesn't have any foreign policy experience," Medvic said. "For instance, he's said we should not have timetables for troop withdrawals to get out of Afghanistan but says we should be out by 2014, the same as the president. How does that work?'
This time, the traditional notion that Democrats are the weak ones in the foreign arena has been reversed.
"With Bin Laden dead, and Iraq pretty much over in the minds of voters, Democrats have a stronger foreign policy to point to than in the past. Usually, Republicans have claimed that mantel. They can't so much now," said Provizer.
If Romney has an opening, it might be how the administration reacted to the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, said David Crockett, professor of political science at Trinity University.
"Romney missed an easy layup on Libya in the second debate by not forcing the issue on what kind of attack it was," said Crockett. "He could have pressed more on whether it was a terror attack or not."
And Romney can take an overall approach by accusing the president of being just too laid back in his global thinking, said Medvic.
"I think you can expect Governor Romney to say that the Obama foreign policy is not working and it's too passive," said Medvic. "Romney can say, 'Look, you end up with riots in Libya, Syria's a mess.' He can say he'd take a more active approach."
(Read More: Round 2: Obama Goes on Offensive in Debate Slugfest)
Romney might also try to tie foreign policy to the economy.
"Jobs and the economy are Romney's strengths and the best thing he might do is to say how his foreign policy, especially in regards to China, might be better for the economy," Provier said.
As for a potential misstep by either candidate, it might not have the affect the other side hopes for.
A case in point was the comment by Ford that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the former Soviet Union.
While pundits were quick to jump on it as a major faux pas, many experts say the statement had little if any influence on their vote.
(Read More: Let the Debates Begin, but Do They Really Matter?")
Foreign policy is not the number one issue for voters usually, and that's the case right now," Crockett said. "Most are more concerned about the economy and jobs. Those voters have more than likely made up their minds on who to vote for."
"It's tough to make foreign policy a central issue in a campaign," said Provizer. "Now, as in most elections, it comes down to the cliche, 'it's the economy, stupid.'"
As to who would suffer more in the event of a poor showing, Obama gets at least one vote.
"I think Obama has the most to lose if he's considered the loser by the pundits," said Provizer. "He's the commander in chief, and if he stumbles in any way, and with this being such a close election, that could let voters have another look at Romney."
"I think both of them have a lot to lose in this," said Joseph Valenzano, a communications professor at the University of Dayton. "If someone is seen as the loser, that's the last image voters have of them. That can influence a voter."
But Valenzano predicts this debate won't change voters' minds no matter who comes out on top.
"I don't see it as game changer at all," he said. "Romney exceeded his goals in the first debate, Obama did pretty much in the second with (Vice President Joe) Biden's help in his debate with Paul Ryan. I don't think debates influence a vote so much as get someone to go out and vote."
(Read More: Biden-Ryan Debate: Clash on Economy, Mideast)
In the end, the debates, all three of them, might not matter much to voters, said Medvic.
"The debates might move some people, but basically they are used to get out the voting base of each party," he said. "What might influence voters more are the endless political ads we'll see between now and Election Day."