America decides: Obama-Romney race 'a dead heat' as rivals face last debate

With two weeks to go, poll suggests White House contest is closest since Bush vs Gore

Boca Raton, Florida

With polls suggesting a dead-heat in the US presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were yesterday cramming for the third and last debate tonight in Boca Raton, Florida, that will give each man a critical chance to grab the momentum going into the final frantic two weeks of the contest.

While Mr Romney was already in Florida, itself one of a handful of key battleground states, Mr Obama was huddled with advisors at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, ahead of the debate. The stakes may be highest for the President, who, since the first debate in Denver, has seen his advantage in polls evaporate.

Moderated by veteran CBS anchor Bob Schieffer on the campus of Lynn University, the debate will be watched by millions of Americans, only a sliver of whom are still open to persuasion. While the questions will be about foreign affairs, with the Libyan killings, the nuclear stand-off with Iran and the rise of China sure to dominate, both men are likely to pivot frequently to the economy.

In another sign that the race may have become the tightest since George W Bush just squeezed out Al Gore in 2000, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll saw both men tied at 47 per cent each among likely voters. Mr Romney is helped by a 10-point lead among men while Mr Obama holds a slightly diminished eight-point lead among women.

Mr Obama will be pressured again to explain the conflicting statements made in the wake of the 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. While it now seems that some in the administration knew from the intelligence services within 24 hours that the attack was the work of militants, some US officials, notably Susan Rice, the US envoy to the UN, continued for days to say it was the work of a mob angered by an anti-Islam video.

Potentially helpful to Mr Romney meanwhile was a report yesterday, denied by both sides, that Iran and the US have agreed to engage in bilateral talks on the Iranian nuclear programme, if only because it will serve as a reminder that Mr Obama's approach on Iran – first to try to engage its leaders and then to pursue ever-tightening sanctions – has still not worked.

Mr Obama has battered his opponent for tacking away from radical positions taken earlier in his campaign, for instance on immigration and abortion, terming it "Romnesia". But Republicans accuse the President of failing to detail an agenda for four more years. "That fires up his base, people who are going to vote for him anyway," said Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "But for the rest of Americans who are trying to make up their mind who to vote for, what they're wondering is, 'Well, that's very cute Mr President, but what are you going to do for the future?'"

On Wednesday, President Obama will begin a frenzied 48-hour campaign blitz that will feature rallies, some in the dead of night in places as far apart as Davenport in Iowa, Denver, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. From there he will track back east to Tampa in Florida, Richmond in Virginia, Chicago and Cleveland in Ohio.

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