Tuesday’s town hall-style presidential debate focused overwhelmingly on domestic and economic issues, but some of the sharpest exchanges came on the topic of the Middle East. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a sweeping critique of the US Administration's policy in the region, terming President Barack Obama "weak" and saying that his policies led to negative developments in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Libya.
"The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes," Romney charged. "We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria - Syria’s not just the tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic - strategically significant player for America."
Regarding Libya, where a US ambassador and three other American citizens were killed when terrorists stormed the US consulate compound in Benghazi, Romney attacked the president for failing to put necessary security measures in place. "This was not a demonstration," Romney said in an attempt to attack the administration on what he claims is misinformation over whether or not the incident was a terrorist act. "This was an attack."
Obama responded that the day after the attack, "I stood in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror, and I said we were going to get those that were behind this."
Romney challenged that the president actually took 14 days to admit that the attack was a terrorist act, an allegation which was repudiated by the debate moderator Candy Crowley and by Obama.
Obama and Romney also disagreed over the economy, with the president attacking the Republican challenger over his economic plan. "Governor Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules," he said.
Romney accused his rival of overseeing a stagnant economy. "The middle class has been crushed over the last four years and jobs have been too scarce," the former Massachusetts governor said.
Turning to energy policy, Romney chided the president for what he said was a policy discouraging domestic production. Obama is not "Mr. Coal, Mr. Gas, Mr. Oil," Romney said. "We can get all the energy we need right now in North America without going to the Arabs or Venezuela."
Obama responded that Romney's energy plan would do nothing for US energy independence and would risk destroying thousands of jobs.
CNN polling of registered voters following the event showed 46 percent of respondents believed US President Barack Obama won the debate, while 39% believed Republican challenger Mitt Romney won.
Reuters and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report