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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Debate Night in America

Aired October 22, 2012 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's debate coverage continues right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their final debate. Just two weeks before the election, the stakes are high and the tension is even higher.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I don't believe people think that's the case because I'm -- that wasn't a question.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: OK.

ROMNEY: That was a statement.

OBAMA: Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true.

ANNOUNCER: America's security is on the line as these candidates spar over international policy. Look for the deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya to come up again.

ROMNEY: It was very clear this was not a demonstration. This was an attack by terrorists.

OBAMA: You don't turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it's happening.

ANNOUNCER: This hour, a one-on-one interview with former President Bill Clinton on America's economic security. He's responding to Republicans who say Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The attack on him is just not quite fair.

ANNOUNCER: Now, CNN's coverage of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, battling for the job of commander-in-chief.

OBAMA: I'm asking for your help to finish the job.

ROMNEY: I need you to go out there and find people that will come join our cause.

ANNOUNCER: The race is close. The election is near. And America's future is up for debate. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This is Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. The presidential debate series is ending in a crucial battleground state. We're waiting for President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney to appear on this stage and give voters one last chance to compare them side by side.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to "DEBATE NIGHT IN AMERICA." I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Our polling shows each of these candidates has a debate win under his belt. Tonight will be the tiebreaker. As we get closer to the first questions of the evening, we'll bring you a one-on-one interview with former President Bill Clinton. CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked him if he and President Obama are different kinds of Democrats as Republicans claim. Stand by for that. That's coming up.

We also have the full force of our political team devoted to bringing you comprehensive debate coverage.

Let's go to my colleague, Anderson Cooper -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There is a lot to cover in the hours ahead. I want to remind our viewers, what you're going to see during the debate, we're going to clock the president and Governor Romney to see how much talk time they each get overall and our focus group of undecided Florida voters will react to what the candidates are saying in real time. Their responses, as you see, will be on the bottom of the screen, lines going up and down, men and women.

Our latest polling shows Obama and Romney neck and neck in Florida, a state obviously hosting tonight's debate. John King is tracking the state of the race right now at the magic wall -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Anderson, that debate in Florida, as you mentioned, Florida, one of the key battlegrounds. As we wrap up the debate season we can say this with certainty. This race is as close as it gets. Momentum has been by and large during these debates to Governor Romney.

Here's where we ended this last debate, advantage Obama, but the Romney campaign feels better about Florida, feels a lot better about North Carolina. That will give them rough parity in the race. Both campaigns say in the last two weeks this could be the biggest prize of all. Democrats saying they can't win without it and maybe neither can we -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, John. Thank you. Let's go to the debate hall right now. CNN's Candy Crowley, she was the moderator of the last debate. She's standing by.

Candy, we're getting closer and closer.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We will. And I can tell you that for Bob Schieffer, the moderator from CBS News, for President Obama, for Governor Romney, this is the longest hour. They are now as ready as they're going to be. And I can tell you that at this moment all three of them are thinking, OK, let's get on with this.

So this is a very anxious hour for all of them. They are today in their smallest venue at least in terms of the numbers of people that are right here in this audience. But this is the last chance that these two men have to make a good impression to such a big audience. The stakes are so high, especially when you look at those polling numbers showing them dead-even in our CNN poll of polls.

I want to bring in now our Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, I know that you interviewed President Obama recently and talked about foreign policy, including the battle against terror. The president has dramatically increased the use of armed drones to target terrorists.

Do you expect that to come up tonight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I know especially critics of the policy would really like it to, Candy, because the president rarely addresses not just the use of drones, but his criteria for targeting terrorists with the drones.

In 2011, the U.S. -- well, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was a cleric living in Yemen, was killed in a drone strike, as was his son. This raised legal and ethical questions, so in my interview with the president, I asked him what is his criteria for the use of lethal force.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OBAMA: My first job, my most sacred duty as president and commander-in-chief is to keep the American people safe, and what that means is we brought a whole bunch of tools to bear to go after al Qaeda and those who would attack Americans. Drones are one tool that we use, and our criteria for using them is very tight and very strict. It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws.

It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States, and this is an example of where I think there's been some misreporting.

Our preference is always to capture if we can because we can gather intelligence. But a lot of the terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones, operate in very remote regions and it's very difficult to capture them.

And we've got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties. And in fact, there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there's going to be civilian casualties involved. So we have an extensive process with a lot of checks, a lot of eyes looking at it.

Obviously as president, ultimately I'm responsible for decisions that are made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.

YELLIN: Sir, do you personally approve the targets?

OBAMA: You know I can't get too deeply into how these things work, but as I said, as commander-in-chief, ultimately, you know, I am responsible for the process that we've set up to make sure that folks who are out to kill Americans, that we are able to disable them before they carry out those plots.

YELLIN: Are the standards different when the target's an American?

OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that when an American has made decision to affiliate itself with al Qaeda and target fellow Americans, that there is a legal justification for us to try to stop them from carrying out plots. What is also true, though, is as American citizens, they are subject to the protections of the Constitution and due process.

YELLIN: Finally on this topic, even Brennan said that some in government struggle with this. Do you struggle with this policy?

OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, I think that a president who doesn't struggle with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism and the difficulties of dealing with an opponent that has no rules, that's something that you have to struggle with. Because if you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means.

And that's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country. Our most powerful tool over the long term to reduce the terrorist threat is to live up to our values. So it's very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about, are we doing the right thing, are we abiding by rule of law, are we abiding by due process. And then set up structures and institutional checks so that you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we're not being true to who we are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now you can consider the drone war a signature aspect of what some people call the Obama doctrine. Limited use of American treasure, American blood, for maximum impact, especially in the war on terror.

On the flip side, Anderson, some critics call it a remote control war where you never see the casualties and there are too many, especially civilian casualties, who are forgotten -- Anderson. COOPER: Certainly the number of drone strikes under this administration has been extraordinary in terms of the escalation of drone strikes from the last administration.

Let's talk about it with our analysts, Gloria Borger, David Gergen, John King and Fareed Zakaria.

Who has a tougher job tonight? Is it President Obama or Mitt Romney?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Mitt Romney has a -- has a very tough job tonight because he has to be aggressive without being bellicose. He has to define what his vague policies have been, particularly as he laid out in this foreign policy speech in early October. And he has to try and put the president on the defensive. And you know, Mitt Romney has to look at women voters. He can't sound like he wants to go to war in Iran or extend the war in Afghanistan. He just can't. So it's going to be a tough act for him.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Here's the odd thing also for Romney. There is a coherent critique of the Obama foreign policy. Unfortunately, it comes from the left. If you listen to what Jessica was saying, right, the issues on which Obama can really be criticized are Guantanamo, drones. The surge in Afghanistan. Tripling the number of forces. But Romney is not going to go there.

Obama has conducted a kind of tough fairly unsentimental foreign policy, been very strong on the counterterrorism part, not so interested in the counterinsurgency, the nation building. That's a sophisticated nuanced issue. It's much tougher to find a point of leverage which is, again, why Libya has been so convenient and so useful over these last few weeks.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I have some disagreement with that view. I do think that President Obama has many accomplishments to his credit and, again, bin Laden being at the top. I think his use of drones surprised a lot of people because he's been more muscular in his foreign policy.

But the last few months have seen an outbreak of violence and a drift in the Middle East, and two-thirds of this debate tonight is going to be focused on the Middle East. That's extraordinary that we've giving so much time to it. But I do think that that illustrates that there are things that are going wrong in the Middle East that Mitt Romney can take advantage of.

I thought at the MI speech in early October had the foundation for a critique he could make tonight as the choice is not between war and strength, the choice is between leadership and passivity, between strength and weakness. And that's where I think he can go. Now --

COOPER: They point to Libya as leading from behind.

GERGEN: Yes. And I would just make one other point which surprised me when I look at --

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: Yes, let me just make one last point that surprised me. There have been six foreign policy debates at the presidential level since 1976 with an incumbent at a podium. The challenger has won four.

ZAKARIA: Well, it's easier to look at -- it's easier to look at things going wrong in the world and say --

GERGEN: Exactly.

ZAKARIA: -- you should have fixed it.

BORGER: Sure.

KING: But, no, and to that point, he's the incumbent. Look, Romney has to step over the credibility threshold, can people close their eyes and say, if god forbid, there is a 9/11, something unpredictable in the world, do I trust this person in the Oval Office? I would use the give you a car key example. So that's -- yes, as the challenger you have more credibility thresholds to step over. He stepped over in the first debate. Is he a president? Did he talk about the economy? Did he look like a president standing next to the current president?

In this one, yes, people have to close their eyes, and say, he's the commander-in-chief. But the biggest lesson from that interview, and what we're talking about here is being president -- I've covered several -- is so different from running for president. And to think that there's President Obama. When he ran four years ago, did anyone think Gitmo would still be open? There would be more drone attacks than during the Bush administration? That you'd have a more robust, you know, counterterrorism and secret wars going on around the world?

Being president is very different. And I hope the American people process that. And I think that's why the gut character leadership test is more important than any specificity on any country.

BORGER: But on the Libya issue, to David's point, Mitt Romney has taken a couple of whacks at Libya and it hasn't worked.

GERGEN: But could be -- the drone attacks.

BORGER: That's right. Maybe by this debate, he'll finally -- he'll finally get it right.

COOPER: Although the specific question which the voter last debate asked President Obama about the intelligence on Benghazi, President Obama didn't answer that question. He very quickly moved on.

BORGER: Right.

COOPER: It became effective for President Obama because he had that very dramatic answer. We'll see if the moderator, we'll see if Mitt Romney tries to focus more of the president's answer on what he knew and when and what he said and his administration said publicly.

Wolf asked Mitt Romney about some of the issues likely to come up tonight. We're going to bring you that.

And interview with Bill Clinton. One question that the former president worried about saying too much.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's DEBATE NIGHT IN AMERICA. We're counting down to the final face-off between the presidential candidates. We're only, what, about 45 minutes or so away from tonight's big debate.

When President Obama and former Governor Romney appear on stage together tonight in Boca Raton -- at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, the moderator will be Bob Schieffer of CBS News. This is the only debate designed to focus exclusively on foreign policy, but we also expect some discussion on issue number one for most American voters -- the economy.

Let's go to debate hall and CNN's Candy Crowley who moderated the second presidential debate for us -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Wolf, I was not in the hall prior to the second debate but I have to tell you that compared to Denver, that very first debate, this is a pretty lively crowd. Just in terms of the -- you can feel the excitement level.

As we know, this is their last 90 minutes to make a really good impression on the largest number of voters that they're going to have the attention of for the rest of the campaign between now and November 6th.

You can feel that kind of excitement here in the hall. I can assure you, they'll get very quiet very soon but right now that kind of excitement, that sort of feel that this is really something special, this is really a -- you know, one of those milestones in the campaign. You can feel very definitely sitting in this hall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, for both candidates, they want to win over undecided voters and energize their respective base voters as well.

Mitt Romney recently had a warm-up for tonight's debate. He gave a speech that was very critical of President Obama's foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. I interviewed Mitt Romney and I pressed him for specifics on what he'd do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: In Syria you said you'd identify members of the opposition and ensure they obtained arms to defeat Bashar al-Assad's tanks. How do you make sure those weapons don't get into the hands of terrorists or al Qaeda?

ROMNEY: Well, Wolf, this is a part of making sure that we're shaping events as opposed to just being at the mercy of events. It means that we would have intelligence resources. We would also be working with our friends in the region, particularly the Saudis, as well as the Turks that are very closely involved in Syria.

We'd work together with them to identify voices within Syria that are reasonable voices, that are moderate voices, that are not al Qaeda or any jihadist type group. We'd try and coalesce those group together, provide them perhaps with funding. Some other kind of support would include, as you indicate, weapons so that they'd be able to defend themselves. Those weapons could come from the Turks or from the Saudis.

But the key thing here is not just to sit back and hope things work out well. But to recognize Iran is playing a major role in Syria and we, through our friends in the region, must also be playing a role to help shape what's happening there and make sure that we rid ourselves of Mr. Assad and don't have in his place chaos or some kind of organization which is as bad as he is, or even worse, take his place.

BLITZER: Speaking of Iran, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as you know, he was at the United Nations recently and he literally drew a red line as far as Iran and its nuclear program is concerned. Here's the question. Is there any daylight between you and the prime minister?

ROMNEY: There's no daylight between the United States and Israel. We have coincident interests. We share values. And we're both absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon. My own test is that Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. I think that's the same test that Benjamin Netanyahu would also apply.

I can't speak for the president in this regard but I think that there has to be a recognition that there are boundaries that the Iranians may not cross. Let's also recognize that we have a long way to go before military action may be necessary, and hopefully it is never necessary. Hopefully through extremely tight sanctions, as well as diplomatic action, we can prevent Iran from taking a course which would -- which would lead to them crossing that line.

BLITZER: Prime Minister Netanyahu at the U.N. spoke of the spring or summer as some sort of deadline. If Israel were to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and you were president of the United States, would you back up Israel?

ROMNEY: We have Israel's back, both at the U.N. but also militarily. I would anticipate that if I'm president, the actions of Israel would not come as a surprise to me but I would meet with the Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would speak with him. I've indicated that my first trip as president would be to Israel. So what would happen there would not be something that would be a shock to me. But I can tell you this, that the crippling sanctions do have an impact. They are having an impact on Iran's economy right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: We're here -- Wolf, you've interviewed him a number of times. Does he speak differently about foreign policy than he does about domestic policy in terms of his comfort level?

BLITZER: He's so much more comfortable talking about domestic economic issues. He knows that subject, given his business experience. He was governor of Massachusetts. When we talk about foreign policy, he's a little bit more tentative, a little bit more nervous. He doesn't know the subjects as thoroughly obviously as the president of the United States who's been dealing with this intimately for four years now.

When I interviewed him in July in Jerusalem we got into some sensitive issues about settlements and Jerusalem being Israel's capital. He was briefed -- he obviously knew what he was talking about but I could see he was a little tentative.

We'll see, I'm going to be watching closely to see his comfort level tonight on these sensitive issues.

COOPER: Yes. And see how much they try to bring it back, both men try to bring it back to domestic policy, to economics.

Bill Clinton has advice for the next president on avoiding an economic disaster. Stand by for that interview.

And only one person has debated both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in a presidential debate. And that is Senator John McCain and he will join us live coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And we are just about 30 minutes away. You're looking at a live picture of the debate hall, Boca Raton, Florida, Lynn University. The final -- the third and final presidential debate just 15 days to go before the presidential election.

Only a handful of people know firsthand what President Obama and Governor Romney are going through right now. Bill Clinton is one of them.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently sat down with the former president to talk about foreign policy and the economy and 2012 politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Do you think Bibi Netanyahu is right that the United States needs to draw a clearer red line with Iran with regard to its nuclear capabilities?

CLINTON: Well, because I was president, and because my wife is secretary of state, I have to be very careful what I say about this. But what I know is that the idea that the United States and Israel are working closely together on this is not true. They talk all the time. President talks to prime minister --

ZAKARIA: Just say that again once because you said the idea that the -- they are. What you're saying is the idea that they are not.

CLINTON: Yes. The idea that they are not working together is inaccurate. I know that the president and the prime minister talk all the time. I know what Hillary is doing. I know that the security services work together. And I think this is the most difficult of all questions, how to handle this. There is no easy answer.

If we are -- with all the scenarios for military action have huge collateral costs which you yourself have noted in your columns, and that explains why substantial number of distinguished Israeli military and intelligence officials has said they don't think an attack is warranted.

I also think it's different what you say to countries in public, what you say in private. And so I think the president's desire to keep his public options open is the correct course at this time. I think that when you say something in public, whatever it is, one of two things happens. When people call you on what you said. You either got to do something about it and deal with perhaps unintended negative consequences or you don't and people think you're weaker. Better to have them wonder what you're going to do and communicate privately in more explicit terms.

ZAKARIA: Whoever gets elected has to deal with the fiscal cliff. What would you recommend?

CLINTON: That as soon as they can they reach a bipartisan agreement for a ten-year debt reduction program that has what you have to have if you want to reduce the debt. You got to have three things.

You have to have appropriate spending controls, you have to have an appropriate revenue stream, and you got to have some economic growth. If you take any one of those three things out and you start with the big debt, you don't get there.

So the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended that we adopt a ten- year plan and delay its implementation for a year. But write it so that you couldn't repeal it, like have 60 percent a requirement to change it. Adopt a ten-year plan.

That would increase confidence around the world. We're going to be serious for a decade. Everybody else can make it, too. Spend this time when interest rates are literally below inflation. People are paying the American government to hold their money.

And have one more year where we invest in our teachers and police officers and firefighters and nurses, keeping them on the job and bringing back more infrastructure funds.

There are lots of other things we can do that I think would make a big difference in the short run, but I think the trick is, invest now, but adopt a really tough debt reduction plan for the next decade.

ZAKARIA: A lot of people heard you at the convention and said -- these are Republicans -- they said he was great, but he's a different kind of Democrat from Barack Obama. Are you a different kind of Democrat?

CLINTON: I think that a lot of my Republican friends have reacted to the rhetoric about letting the tax cuts lapse on upper income people in a way that obscures President Obama. President Obama has not been anti-business.

There have been -- I don't know -- way over a dozen tax cuts just directed at small businesses. He's committed to relieve them of $10 billion worth of regulatory burdens that they face. We have had a period where he has not imposed new taxes on anybody hoping the economy would heal.

He has simply said that the debt problem is huge. It can't be solved by cuts alone. And since people like us who are upper income groups benefited from the growth in the last decade and most in the tax cuts, we ought to kick in a little help reach the goal.

I think that if you just look at the policies he's followed, at the things he did to try to bring manufacturing back to America, to try to get America back in the front of the parade on solar and wind an these other new energy technologies, which are powering lots of jobs in Germany and China and elsewhere, that the attack on him is just not quite fair.

And, he offered $3 trillion or so debt reduction plan to congress. So it's not true that he's not serious about dealing with the debt. I think that image they have has been unduly affected by the political rhetoric of the season and what the people are saying about him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're joined by Fareed now. President Clinton has really taken a very hands-on role out on the campaign trail.

ZAKARIA: He's loving it. Remember, the most important thing here and everyone talks about, you know, he loves the limelight. I think he's passionate about public policy, he's passionate about government.

The detail with which he can explain to you what the president should do, what the secretary of state should do, he thinks about these issues, he games them out. It is really because he's absolutely passionate about it.

So I think at some level the relationship between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton is one of the most adult relationships in America right now because, they've had history, there's a past that had to be overcome.

But it is fundamentally because they all do care very passionately about the substance of what they are talking about.

COOPER: He looks in good health, I mean, President Clinton.

ZAKARIA: He was looking fantastic. I mean, he told me that his goal is to get to his high school weight, but he's headed that way.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, he's a guy who takes a joy in politics, unlike either of these two candidates here. You get the sense with Bill Clinton that he loves the process of getting to where you're going to get. He loves the policy, loves the politics. I think the two men on the stage tonight. The politics is more what you have to go through to do what you want to do.

COOPER: That comes across.

BORGER: It does. I think it does.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He's getting much more satisfaction out of the Clinton Global Initiative, which has gone both domestic as well as international. I think he even imagined himself now it appears that Hillary will be joining him there after she leaves the State Department.

He has given the best speech of anybody this campaign. His numbers are the highest of anybody in the country. He's having a really good time. This is -- his post-presidential years I think have been much more rewarding than he might have imagined. You know, he's got the real possibility that his wife could one day be in the White House.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I lived through a lot of Dunkin' Donuts and Little Rock McDonald's and worse with the governor and then the president back in the day. He does look good now. He'll be in that four-letter word called Ohio a lot.

COOPER: Candy Crowley is standing by with her special guest, Senator John McCain -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, thanks. I am here with Senator John McCain, as they say the only other person on planet who has debated both of these men. When you go out and there's that handshake, what's going through your mind in that point? Are you sizing each other up or are you just thinking let's sit down. What's going on?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think it varies with every individual, but in my case, it is that I wanted to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row that I was fully prepared.

You know, in all due respect to moderators' intelligence and ingenuity, you really now 8 of the 10 questions. I mean, they're obvious because they're salient issues of the day.

You don't want to talk too fast, you want to be coherent. So it's more trying to make sure you are relaxed and going through what you are prepared to say.

CROWLEY: As you met both of these men on stage, were you thinking -- were you trying to size them up or you were just --

MCCAIN: No. CROWLEY: Shake hands, sit down.

MCCAIN: Yes. I wouldn't trying to size them up. I knew them. It wasn't as if it was first encounter. I knew them both well. They're both good.

CROWLEY: When you go through a debate like this with either one of them, did you think, okay, he's really hot now. I mean, he's sort of ratcheting this up so I need to do it --

MCCAIN: No. As you recall most of the debates, up until the second one, presidential debates were generally pretty level. I didn't engage -- I don't remember another one just like the second one. I don't think most Americans like that.

They don't like the interrupting. They want to learn and it doesn't help when both of them are talking. I would point out that Obama interrupted Romney twice as many times as Romney interrupted him. Obviously, it was a compensation for perceived passivity in the first debate.

CROWLEY: So when you're like this hour, this final hour, what were you doing? What's going through your mind?

MCCAIN: I was with friends trying to relax and try not to get to tensed up. You're with friends and shoot the breeze and kind of try to stay as relaxed as possible and be happy.

Be happy that you're there. Be honored that, you know, a person like me was so fortunate to be on the stage competing for the presidency of the United States.

CROWLEY: And when you -- you said earlier you want to be on because you know what the eight questions are. Go ahead. What are they going to be tonight?

MCCAIN: I think obviously Libya will be one of them. I think another one will be the defense spending and much is necessary. I think China's clearly going to be another one of the issues. Our commitments to how much of defense spending and how much we can reduce.

As you know, that's an attack line of the president's. And I think a vision. They're going to ask about vision, what kind of America do you want to see five years from now. That's just a brief summary.

CROWLEY: Finally, if you're looking at this for Mitt Romney, you would say to him, here's the trap door, don't fall into it. What's the trap door?

MCCAIN: The trap door is that President Obama will try to convince the American people that he is too hawkish and that he would -- Americans are war weary, that he would get us into wars in the Middle East and around the world. And he will brag on getting out in 2014 from Afghanistan. He won't talk about the unraveling in Iraq and Afghanistan and this debacle in Libya, but he's good and I would never underestimate the president of the United States. The American people like him, but mitt's been -- we've been pretty proud of Mitt.

CROWLEY: John, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

CROWLEY: Wolf, back to you.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Candy. Thanks very much. We're also getting a glimpse of Mitt Romney and his family backstage before tonight's huge debate.

His aide posted this photo on Twitter. Check out the background. Someone apparently put up photos of Romney and his family up on the wall probably making him feel a little bit better.

Peter Hamby, our political reporter is on the phone. He is getting some inside information on what we can expect. What are you learning, Peter?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (via telephone): Hi, Wolf. Yes. CNN's just actually obtained internal campaign talking points about foreign policy and I want to read some of them to you real quick just to give you some clues as to what Romney is going to say tonight.

Now the campaign regularly circulates sort of message points as campaigns start to get them, Republican officials to try to keep them on the message of the day. I want to read one of these message points that we've obtained that the Romney campaign is telling their allies to talk about tonight.

They're saying, quote, "under his leadership," Romney, that is, "no friend of America will question our commitment to support them. No enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them, and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America's capability to back up our word."

Wolf, if we're reading these for sort of clues as to what Romney's going to do tonight, I think we can infer obviously that he's trying to project an image of strength, clarity, amid this effort by the Romney campaign to say that the second term agenda for Obama is nothing more than a muddle and a bunch of mixed messaging.

So again, I think we can expect as you guys have been talking about, Romney to project an image of strength tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Peter, thanks very much.

Mark Preston's our political director. He's also getting inside information on Romney's strategy. Mark, what are you learning?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR (via telephone): Well, you know, Wolf, senior aides involved in the governor's debate prep tell me that tonight will be much different than what we witnessed last week. The goal for Governor Romney in this debate is to demonstrate that he can be commander in chief.

His senior aides believe he's proven it when it comes to the economy, and tonight he will do it on foreign policy. While the focus of the debate tonight is on foreign policy, expect Governor Romney to talk a fair amount about the connection between foreign policy and economic policy really emphasizing that the nation's adversaries and our allies see the U.S. economy as a major weakness.

On the issue of Libya, senior aides say that Governor Romney's prepared to talk about Benghazi, but don't expect him to drill down on it, such as engaging in a back and forth on the timeline.

Rather, he will use this as an opportunity to offer a broad critique of President Obama's foreign policy decision emphasizing that the United States has less influence in the Middle East and that this part of the world is more unstable now than when Obama took office -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good to know. Thanks very much for that, Mark Preston -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, not really surprised hearing from what we just heard from Peter Hamby about giving back to the economy as much as possible and some of the talking points of the Romney campaign.

GERGEN: It's surprisingly predictable. We've been talking about that for the last couple of hours. Saying basically we think that's probably where someone would go. Lo and behold, sounds like they are.

BORGER: One thing we haven't talked about is defense. I think they're really going to start talking about the trillion on dollars in budget cuts that the president would have. And how they would have more --

COOPER: We've heard both sides in both these debates. Their lines are pretty well rehearsed at this point in terms of President Obama saying he's asked for more money than the pentagon has asked for, Governor Romney countering that.

BORGER: We're going to see that again.

ZAKARIA: I think at this part, David made this point earlier, which I think is really crucial, which is they recognize this is the last time they have this opportunity. This is the last time they have a huge audience to get across an unfiltered message.

And if I were advising them, I would say, even though I do foreign policy, I would say make sure you spend a lot of time talking about the economy. Make sure you talk about your general message and the things you want people to remember about you because this is your last shot.

COOPER: This is it. KING: And Romney has improved his likability over the course of the debates. That's a challenge tonight when talking about a subject that's not so personal, if you will, foreign policy. See if he can work on that.

I think the president understands the dynamic of the race. He needs to be optimistic and again get back to the economy. They both get closing statements in this debate so that will be a campaign ad. They'll look straight to the camera and know what they want to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any time that anyone gets in the ring with the commander in chief --

COOPER: We're looking obviously Michelle Obama coming in to the auditorium at the university.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Their most important debate coaches, apparently the wives, here. Any time anyone gets in the ring with a heavyweight champ, it elevates you.

Tonight Mitt Romney's going to be in the ring with the commander in chief. A confidence performance would tend, I think as David said to level the field and would bring Romney up.

KING: You think --

COOPER: There's Ann Romney and her kids around her as well.

GERGEN: Does Romney need to win tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Romney would be very happy with letting Barack Obama have a slight victory on foreign policy come out of this being seen as an alternative, possibility as commander in chief.

I think holding his own is enough because the Super Bowl isn't being played in this stadium in foreign policy tonight. It is being played in the stadium next door -- the economy. A tie here let's go back to the economy where he is improving his stock.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think in order for him to do what you say, he's going to have to do something that's very hard. He's going to have to ignore 70 percent of his own advisors. Romney's advisors, 70 percent are from the Bush era, John Bolton as an advisor. In order to do well tonight, he'll have to ignore all those advisors.

GERGEN: He's going to have to say what he believes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If he does say what his advisors are for, he's going to scare --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where does Barack Obama get his secretary of defense? I'm just curious.

ZAKARIA: Most presidential candidates don't know what they think about foreign policy. They just -- they do what seems convenient. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's why the advisors are so important.

BORGER: But he ignored the Bush advisers in that economic debate last time. He threw all the bushes under the bus last time.

KING: Temperament question. Americans have a history of electing governors. A lot of governors get this question. Ronald Reagan was the loose cannon who was going to start the nuclear war. Americans have traditionally elect governors president and governors have limited or no foreign policy experience.

COOPER: You are seeing Ann Romney on the center of your screen, Michelle Obama to the right. Former governor of Florida, Charlie Christ diagonally behind first lady Michelle Obama and Ann Romney surrounded by some of her sons.

BORGER: I would have to tell you about Ann Romney in talking to her over this campaign, she says that when Mitt Romney gets in that room, he looks for her because he kind of looks for her approval during the entire debate.

As we said, he gets to the podium and he writes "dad" on a piece of paper to remind him how his father would have conducted himself. You can see she's kind of --

COOPER: He also takes off his watch, puts it on the podium -- none of that looking at your wristwatch.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The dynamic of sitting around a table doesn't really change what the candidates do as much as you'd like to think.

GERGEN: The Biden debate proved that.

CASTELLANOS: Still very tough. You still say, look, I respect and love my opponent. He's a great guy, terrific guy. It is just I'm amazed he's so wrong on one, two and three. I don't think it will limit these guys tonight from drawing some very sharp contrast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it is going to be interesting, some of the things that wind up not getting discussed tonight. There are some things that are important. Climate change, for instance is probably going to redraw the world's maps because you're going to have sea level rise. That's going to create tremendous controversy.

COOPER: I don't think anybody's used that phrase climate change.

VAN JONES, FORMER OBAMA SPECIAL ADVISOR: But think of the things that impact foreign policy in the United States. You have a youth bulge in the world, a global youth bulge. You got to have half a billion or a billion young people with no jobs. That's economic policy for the U.S. and for the world probably won't be discussed.

ZAKARIA: That's a very good point. When we end up talking about our crises, foreign policy is actually a much broader palate and the president has to deal with that, relations with Latin America, of course relations with China, the complicated dance of cooperation and conflict.

We'll end up talking about probably security of the consulate in Benghazi. It is perhaps understandable, but it is really a microcosm. It is a set of flash points rather than talking about the big issues that are shaping the world.

COOPER: Mitt Romney does talk a lot about trying to increase trade with Latin America. He will reference that again.

CASTELLANOS: There is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to bring economics into the foreign policy debate tonight. One of the things we're going to see in this world in the next 20 years is an expanding middle class globally.

Is that a challenge, a competitive challenge for the United States? Is it a tremendous opportunity? This country has built tremendous success selling stuff to middle class. And that could be Mitt Romney's --

ZAKARIA: Most of that middle class is in China. Right now he's determined --

COOPER: Let's go back to Wolf right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, thanks very much. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, they look lovely tonight, but you can see they're both a little nervous, understandably so, as their husbands get ready for this third and final debate.

Soledad O'Brien's with a special group of folks in Orlando, Florida right now, our focus group, undecided voters. Soledad, we're going to see that squiggly line at the bottom of the screen.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "STARTING POINT": Yes, we're going to be following exactly what they're feeling as they watch the debate. I want to give you more information about our focus group tonight, Wolf.

A racial breakdown -- 76 percent of the focus group is white, 20 percent black, 4 percent Asian. Remember, we're not really talking about representing the community here in Orlando. We're talking about a very narrow sliver of people who say they're both undecided and likely voters.

That's why you sort of see the layout that you see. In this group we have a nurse. We have five people who are retired, two folks who are unemployed, somebody who works in the hospitality industry, a couple of folks who work in finance, accountant, and consultants.

I want to chat for a minute with Jay Kaplin. He describes himself as a retired job creator. What do you want to hear in this particular debate?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the thing that's bothered me from the beginning is the word job creator thrown around as if business people make hiring decisions based on tax policy or government policy. Business people, in my experience, have always made decisions on hiring people whether or not they can make more money. I'd like to get a little more integrity in the responses to the questions about what economic policies are going to do that will help people sell more things so they can hire more people.

O'BRIEN: You might be disappointed tonight because the conversation is about foreign policy. It might be something you do not hear in this debate tonight, might leave you undecided at the end of the night.

Over here is Sara Jackson. Sara, you've been unemployed for quite a while now after 45 years of work. What do you need to hear tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Basically what I want to hear concerning foreign policy is what steps they will take to bring back -- or to give back to Americans those jobs that over the last 12 years have been sent overseas.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Sara. Down here, we have Kathleen Jansen. You've worked as a local director for the American Cancer Society.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

O'BRIEN: There are many folks who have said to me people who are undecided this late in the game cannot be telling the truth. It's only 15 days. Everybody here really secretly inside has made their decision. You were almost offended by that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I was surprised that anyone might think I'm faking. I'm taking it very seriously so tonight is very important to me. I've watched both the debates and this third one, I hope, will help me make a final decision. But I just feel that I need someone to kind of rock my world tonight so that I'll make my decision.

O'BRIEN: Wow. Kathleen Jansen is waiting for someone to rock her world tonight. Well, we'll hope you are not disappointed this evening. To all of our testers, we wish you luck. We'll be following what you're seeing tonight. Wolf, let's send it right back to you.

BLITZER: Anxious to hear what they say after the debate as well. Dan Lothian is outside the debate hall in Boca Raton at Lynn University at a watch party. What's going on over there?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We're about six miles away from the campus of Lynn University. This is an outdoor rally, a concert, neon trees, popular group, just finished performing here.

This is sponsored by rock the vote. Obviously, the big push here is to get folks to register to vote. I'm joined by an undecided voter, Lindsey, right? Lindsey Ackerman. What is it that you're waiting to hear before you will make up your mind? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, the race is very close right now. Tonight the final debate is very crucial on how I will pick a candidate. I'm looking for everything all around. I'm a teacher so education is very important for me so I'm looking to see which candidate will best suit me.

LOTHIAN: You have just -- you told me that when foreign policy, it's very important to you. You want a president who is very strong on foreign policy, but because you're a teacher, you're more focused on domestic issues. What is it that really drives you and will push you when you go to vote?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very important for people to support teachers and the education process. Students are important in the world and how you teach is important. So foreign policy --

BLITZER: Just a second, guys. I'm going to interrupt for a second because Bob Schieffer, the CBS News moderator for tonight's debate is addressing the crowd right now.

BOB SCHIEFFER, MODERATOR: -- from the longest I can remember to be a reporter when I was a little boy. And I was a lucky guy, because I got to do when I grew up what I wanted to do back in those days. It's been a wonderful life.

These debates have become such an important part of our election process in this country that I hope we'll have a great debate tonight. I just like to reiterate what you have already been told.

We have to be quiet as mice throughout this because we want a debate that is worthy of the presidency, of the greatest country in the world. Thank you all for coming.

BLITZER: That's Bob Schieffer. He's going to moderate this 90- minute debate. Candy, you did it six days ago so you can certainly appreciate what Bob Schieffer is about to go through.

CROWLEY: It is. But it's his third time, as he mentioned in the walk-up to this. As you know, very laid back guy, very in control. This is going to and terrific debate.

Wolf, I wanted to bring in a Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Republican strategist Ari Fleischer. Right now, these guys are looking at about six minutes. What's going through their mind and who's talking to them?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the great tragedy is that their spouses aren't with them. These are both guys who are seriously over married. They have really remarkable spouses and they always do better whether their wives are around.

Their wives can't be backstage with them, which I think is unfair. Usually a few close aides. President Clinton liked to bounce a basketball around and talk about mystery novels just to clear his head. As he walk out, I'd always whisper in his ear, trust your instincts. Something pops in your head, say it because I didn't want him to be over programmed.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Paul's right. Get your mind off of it. That's the most important thing at this stage. There's no more prepping to be done. It better have been done already.

Two things came to my mind with George W. Bush, humor and prayer. You want to get them in a light frame of mind going in here. He would make irreverent jokes, cracking people up around him. It showed he was loose.

But he would also stop and pray. I have a feeling Mitt Romney's going to do this same thing. Who knows, maybe President Obama will, too. It was always an important moment for President Bush. He will do it when nobody was around. That's how he would collect himself.

CROWLEY: Mitt Romney's having the first words. This was all a coin toss. He's having the first word and the last word. How important is the closing argument? They get two minutes.

BEGALA: Sounds like Romney's prayers have been answered already in one way getting to begin the debate and close it. Ronald Reagan won the presidency with his closing statement in the 1980 October debate. Are you better off now than you were four years ago? These guys have to frame it up as well as Reagan.

FLEISCHER: The fact that Mitt Romney gets the final close, it's helpful. You want to go in to the off-season on your notes and hopefully on a win.

CROWLEY: So the lucky coin toss. Thank you very much, Ari. Paul, stick with me tonight. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Hard to believe. Tomorrow two weeks to go. Jessica Yellin, you're getting some last-minute information on the president, what he's planning on doing.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, very different expectations tonight aides say the president is feeling confident this time ready to come out on the offensive. Of all the debates, this is the one that's really in his had wheelhouse, they say, because foreign policy is a language that he's so comfortable in.

And they believe that there are areas he can exploit, areas of weakness for. I look at that picture of the two first ladies. This is the first night I see Mrs. Obama looking comfortable and not nervous and tense.

It seems that the president and the body language from camp Obama is much more relaxed tonight and I'm told the president did a walk- through of the debate stage earlier today and felt good. Wolf, back to you. BLITZER: All right, let's go to Jim Acosta. He is getting some last-minute information about Mitt Romney and who he's getting ready for this debate.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We've seen some pictures tweeted out by the campaign showing the former Massachusetts governor trying to relax with his family.

But I talked to a senior Romney aide who said he's feeling nervous, feeling a little sick to his stomach and said he was looking forward to eating solid foods after this campaign is over. One person who's feeling all right this evening, Wolf, is the governor's body man, Garrett Jackson, his personal assistant.

He got this photo earlier this afternoon with he and Governor Romney sitting at the debate roundtable in one of their lighter moments before this debate later on this evening, Wolf.

As you know, one of the job descriptions of the personal assistant for a Republican presidential candidate, at least in this case, is to keep things light. That's what they were trying to do earlier today.

BLITZER: We'll see how cool they are. Anderson.

COOPER: Got about two minutes left before this debate. Very quickly, primer for viewers, everybody, what are you going to be looking for?

KING: How often they turn international challenges back to the United States economy and the temperament question. One is the commander in chief. One wants to be the commander in chief. It won't be as hot tonight.

GERGEN: How comfortable each candidate makes us feel if he is the commander in chief, how calm, how deliberative, how thoughtful he'll be about the use of force but also strong. I think I am also looking to see who wins because the winner may well be the next president.

BORGER: I think what you are looking -- what I'm looking for is a candidate who can be reassuring to me in a crazy world in which we live and to see whether can be strong without being bellicose.

ZAKARIA: If you hear a lot about the auto bailout, jobs, trade and China, it means Ohio really is the deciding factor in this election.

CASTELLANOS: This is the last time we're going to see these two men together. So this is not only the debate about foreign policy, this is the last chapter of the book of the campaign, which of these guys is going to lift our eyes over the horizon a little bit and say we can do better than this, we can be a safer, stronger and more prosperous country and make us feel that optimism. I think that's the guy who wins tonight. JONES: This is the last time Barack Obama will debate. For I think a lot of people, that's going to be a very important moment in American history to watch him do that. Last time he's going to be a candidate.

I'm going to be looking to see how well he holds Romney to his previous statements. Romney's going to want to run away from those statements and do a switcheroo. I'm going to watch and see if this president can hold him to his previous statements, which have been very bellicose.

COOPER: And just one minute left to go. It is remarkable how impactful these debates have been. Both in the primary season and also in this presidential season.

BORGER: Well, it changed the race. Completely after --

GERGEN: And we --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: After the first debate. And at the second debate the president sort of stopped the bleeding for himself but the first debate was a game changer.

GERGEN: President Obama was heading not only for victory but potentially a blowout. I think he's lost that opportunity for blowout now. He still could get a victory. I think he still --

COOPER: But that support must have been soft if it was able to change.

GERGEN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: And part of it was a lacking of intensity on the Republican side. Republicans have come home. The president brought Democrats back in the second debate. This is the tiebreaker of the debates, if you will. Then we get a two-week chess game. And a very consequential chess game. Where do you land the planes of the candidates? Where do you spend your TV money? Where do you pull back? It's crunch time.

GERGEN: Yes.

ZAKARIA: The reason all of this is because it is a divided nation. And you saw the most recent poll which is ironically at 47 percent for each candidate.

COOPER: And let's go to our Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Really interested to see if either of these two candidates has any factual errors. I'm going to be listening very, very closely. Some of these foreign policy issues are very nuanced, very complex and one misstatement could cause some international ramifications. Going to be listening very carefully.

Bob Schieffer, as you could see, he's already seated at the table. Within a few second he will introduce both of these candidates. They will come in. He'll read the rules, the ground rules that were so carefully negotiated between these two campaigns, and the Presidential Debate Commission.

Everything, everything, has been negotiated. Here's Bob Schieffer.