US President Barack Obama said on Monday he will stand with Israel should Iran attack, whilst GOP candidate Mitt Romney added that he’ll stop a nuclear-capable Iran.
The presidential candidates debated in Lynn University, Florida for the third and final presidential debate, devoted to foreign policy, ahead of the November 6 elections.
A CNN poll conducted among undecided voters determined President Barack Obama won the debate overall, with 48 percent of those polled voting for him. 40 percent said GOP candidate Mitt Romney came out on top.
Both candidates affirmed their friendship with Israel, after mentioning the country 34 times during the debate.
Obama stated: "Israel is a true friend, [our] greatest ally," and says the work the US did with respect to sanctions now "offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we're not going to take any options off the table."
Obama cited the upcoming joint US-Israel military exercise as evidence of the close relationship between Israel and the United States, stating the drill was evidence of the "strongest military cooperation in history."
Romney countered by attacking the President for damage done to ties with Israel. He said Iran looked at the current President and saw weakness. He commented that Iran has noticed "daylight" between the US and Israel too.
Discussing the Iranian nuclear program and possibility of a preemptive attack, both candidates promised their administration would stand by Israel in the event of an attack.
The president commented: "Premature military action [on Iran] would be a mistake. That is the last resort, not the first."
He then emphasized: "As long as I'm president, Iran will not get in the way."
Obama added: "We have a sense of what is going on...the clock is ticking, if they do not meet demands of the international community, we will take all options necessary."
Romney countered: "If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That's number one."
The GOP candidate remarked that a nuclear-capable Iran is unacceptable to America: "It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us."
Romney added: "We are four years closer to a nuclear Iran," and said he wished those years had not been wasted. He went on to accuse Obama of "skipping Israel" during his tour of the region.
Obama quickly countered the accusation, stating: "I went to Israel as a candidate. I didn’t take fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem the Holocaust memorial. I went to Sderot and saw families who showed me where missiles had fallen from Gaza. We funded Iron Dome. That’s how I’ve used my travels.”
Obama went on to deny recent newspaper reports that Iran and the United States had agreed to hold one-on-one talks on Tehran's nuclear program were "not true."
Obama made the comment at a debate on foreign policy. The New York Times quoted unnamed US administration officials on Saturday as saying that secret exchanges between US and Iranian officials had resulted in an agreement "in principle" to hold direct talks.
Obama said: "Those reports are not true, but our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear ambitions."
Both candidates trumpeted the success of the recent crippling sanctions on Iran.
Obama stated: "Iran is at its weakest point economically, strategically, militarily than in many years."
The debate was the last major opportunity for either candidate to appeal directly to millions of voters - especially the roughly 20 percent who have yet to make up their minds or who could still switch their support at the November 6 election.
World hot spots like Libya and Iran figured prominently, with Romney seeking to put pressure on Obama over what the Republican considers weak responses to the killing of the US ambassador to Libya on September 11 and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The two candidates were tied at 46 percent each in the Reuters/Ipsos online daily tracking poll. Other surveys show a similar picture.
Obama came to Boca Raton with the advantage of having led US national security and foreign affairs for the past 3 1/2 years. He gets credit for ending the Iraq war and the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
But Romney will have many opportunities to steer the conversation back toward the weak US economy, a topic on which voters see him as more credible. His goal was to appear as a credible alternative to Obama and avoid any gaffes that could deflate his recent surge.
Presidential debates have not always been consequential, but they have had an impact this year.
Romney's strong performance in the first debate in Denver on October 3 helped him recover from a series of stumbles and wiped out Obama's advantage in opinion polls.
Obama fared better in their second encounter on October 16, in what was deemed to be one of the most confrontational presidential debates ever, but that has not helped him regain the lead.
Reuters contributed to this report.