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DING, DING, ROUND 3: President Obama and Mitt Romney square off in Florida tonight at 9 p.m. ET for their third and final debate of the campaign season, providing the last (relatively) unscripted moment between now and when voters head to the polls in two weeks. Combine that fact with current polling that shows a dead heat at the national level, and if nothing else, what happens in Boca Raton tonight is likely to go a long way in determining the narrative—that is, Did Candidate A win the race, or did Candidate B lose it?—that is told in the first drafts of history. (Whether such narratives are fair, obviously, remains very much an open question.)
TONIGHT'S TOPICS: The night's focus is foreign policy, meaning we can expect to relive the last debate's memorable—if muddled—back and forth over the attack on the American consulate in Libya and the president's response to it. That said, Obama and Romney have had ample time to refine their talking points on that topic, so the rematch may prove to be largely a draw. In comparison, the candidates have mostly only sparred on the night's other topics—like Iran's nuclear program and China's manufacturing—so the more memorable exchanges could come from those segments if either man decides to start throwing haymakers.
BUT DO VOTERS ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT FOREIGN POLICY? In a word: No. The New York Times with a few more: "In polls this year, voters have practically screamed at the top of their lungs how little they care about foreign policy. In recent polls of three battleground states, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of voters in each state said national security was the most important issue to them, ranking below the economy, deficit and health care."
FOR THOSE WHO DO: As selected by moderator Bob Schieffer, there will be one 15-minute segment on each of the following four topics: 1) America's role in the world; 2) our longest war: Afghanistan and Pakistan; 3) red lines: Israel and Iran; and 4) the rise of China and tomorrow's world. Also, two separate 15-minute segments will cover the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR? Slate's John Dickerson: "Whenever both men drill down on a topic and seem particularly passionate, think about the voters in battleground states. So if the scuffle is over Libya, think about trust and suburban women. Romney wants you to think that the president isn't being honest with you about the chain of events. Obama wants you to think that Romney is so politically craven that he won't be a good steward of the office. He's driven by politics, not a core set of values. When you hear about China, think about Ohio blue collar workers. When you hear talk about defense spending, think about Virginia; the state is the No. 1 recipient of federal defense dollars. In the key swing district of Hampton Roads, 45 percent of the economy is tied to the military. ... If the candidates are using foreign policy as a proxy to appeal to battleground-state voters, it means the substance is going to be a good distance from reality."
WHAT THEY WON'T TALK ABOUT: Slate's Kerry Howley: "No one at tonight's event is going to force Obama to defend the virtues of either the kill list or drone warfare. Though both Romney and Obama will lament the loss of U.S. soldiers, neither will mourn the civilian casualties in any of our adventures abroad—and certainly no one will be on hand to oppose sanctions against Iran. In the argument over whether to increase spending by trillions of dollars or maintain the current level of spending relative to inflation, not a soul on stage will suggest significant cuts. On the hawkish side, there is no one to make the explicit call for perpetual war, demand that we retake the Philippines, or claim the parts of Mexico we didn't grab the first time. Choices!"
THREE'S COMPANY: As we've mentioned before, tonight's format is slated to follow the same format as the first debate, with the moderator focusing on facilitating a more freewheeling back and forth than was on display during last week's more segmented town hall event. Given how much flak moderator Jim Lehrer caught during/after the first debate, it's a safe bet that Schieffer will take a slightly more hands-on approach than his fellow veteran news anchor did.
HAPPY (FINAL) DEBATE DAY and welcome to The Slatest PM. Follow the entire team @slatest and your afternoon host @JoshVoorhees, or fill his inbox with your thoughts about tonight's debate or anything else on your mind at email@example.com.
FOLLOW ALONG WITH US: In the age of Twitter, we no longer have to wait until debates are over to see how partisans will portray events and gaffes—now we can witness the spinning, reporting, and commentary in real time. As we've done for the past three debates, Slate will again be running our Instant Spin Room during tonight's event.
DAYS UNTIL THE ELECTION: Fifteen (15).
SPEAKING OF POLLING: The Persistent, Zombie-Like Ohio Lead for Obama
A NOTE FROM JOHN DICKERSON: "Dear Undecided Voters: Do you exist? Some people are skeptical. They wonder: How could anyone still be undecided? But I know you are out there. I’ve met a few of you on the campaign trail—though there may only be enough of you to fit on a school bus. ... In a close election, you might be the key. Many of you like Barack Obama but are considering not voting for him again. But wait, rather than have me tell you what you’re thinking, I’m going to stop there and not guess at what you, the undecided voter, are thinking. I’d like you to tell us. Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and, in a paragraph, explain why you’re undecided between the two candidates. If we get enough good responses, I’ll write about it. If not, I’ll use it to inform future pieces. If we get no responses, we’ll assume you don’t exist and you won’t get the holiday ham we send every year."
SLATE QUICK HITS—
Explainer: Do Restraining Orders Work?
XX Factor: Women Are for Obama, Men Are for Romney
Future Tense: What Quantum Computing Is—and What It's Not
Browbeat: Argo Meets Fargo
CHECKING THE NON-DEBATE TRAPS—
Reuters: "Native American activist-turned-actor Russell Means died on Monday at his home in South Dakota, his family said in a statement. He was 72."
AP: "A Wisconsin woman whose husband killed her and two others at the spa where she worked said he threatened to throw acid in her face and jealously terrorized her "every waking moment," according to court documents."
WSJ: "High school popularity may pay off. A study released Monday argues those in the top fifth of the high school popularity pyramid garnered a 10% wage premium nearly 40 years after graduation, compared to those in the bottom fifth."
We'll see you back here tomorrow. But until then, tell your friends to subscribe here, or simply forward the newsletter on and let them make up their own minds.