National security and foreign policy finally come front-and-center Monday night. So it is high time to assess the candidates' relative strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Some small hints about where they stand were dropped in the Ryan-Biden undercard matchup -- and Libya was discussed, though clumsily, in Obama-Romney II -- but the real action is only now heating up.
Here are the seven most salient issues -- in rough order of public interest -- and how the candidates match up:
Obama: Features a solid left jab, aiming at incremental budget cuts. He also enjoys better footwork, intended to help make the military nimbler and more networked.
Romney: Has a strong "no cut" uppercut, and promises to sustain, even increase, the Pentagon budget. "I want America to be so strong no one will ever think of attacking us."
Analysis: Substantial advantage to Obama. Our current economic straits make reductions in defense spending mandatory. And a shift from the Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force" to a more supple approach is long overdue.
Obama: Emphasizes a massive training regimen for Afghans who have little faith in their weak, corrupt central government.
Romney: Agrees with much of Obama's Afghan policy, but thinks that Obama's declaration of no mas in 2014 allows the Taliban to rope-a-dope us until we leave.
Analysis: Slight edge to Romney for realizing that we shouldn't telegraph our final punches. But neither candidate reflects an awareness of the futility of centralized nation-building in Afghanistan, a country where it's the "edges" that truly matter.
Obama: Has deftly avoided precipitate intervention in the fight, while at the same time making clear that Assad regime atrocities or use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
Romney: A bit too eager to mix it up by arming the insurgents. Wants to select the "right ones" to support, but there may be no Mr. Right in this conflict.
Analysis: Slight advantage to Obama. His cautious approach is laudable, but it is ever more difficult to watch the suffering of innocent Syrians.
Obama: Trying to prevent nuclear proliferation by employing a variety of tactics against Tehran. Relying on economic sanctions, (alleged) covert cyber attack, last-resort threats of the use of force -- and some diplomacy as well.
Romney: Seeks the same outcome as Obama, would employ much the same approach, but more likely to emphasize force, perhaps even allow Israel in as a "ringer."
Analysis: Edge to Obama, as he is more willing to keep trying for a diplomatic solution. Romney's posture is a bit too combative.