(CBS News) - Kicking off the final debate before the presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney exchanged harsh words tonight over the best path for guiding American foreign policy, with Mr. Obama accusing Romney of "wrong and reckless leadership" and Romney targeting the president over his vision for the Middle East.
In an aggressive attack of his rival right out of the gate, Mr. Obama attempted to undermine Romney's record on Iraq and Afghanistan, which he cast as muddled and inconsistent, and called for "strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map." He also accused Romney of espousing regressive policies -- relating to foreign policy and otherwise -- that hearken back to the past rather than the future.
"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back," said Mr. Obama, referring to a comment Romney made once about the threat Russia poses to American interests. "Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s."
"You say that you're not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq. But just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now," Mr. Obama said. "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn't be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies."
Romney, meanwhile, immediately questioned Mr. Obama's reaction to the Arab Spring, and argued that "what we're seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region."
"We can't kill our way out of this mess," Romney said, before calling for a "comprehensive and robust strategy" to help "the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism."
"With the Arab Spring, came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation, and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East," he said. "But instead, we've seen in nation after nation, a number of disturbing events. Of course we see in Syria, 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in -- in Libya, an attack apparently by, I think we know now, by terrorists of some kind against -- against our people there, four people dead."
Returning repeatedly to the nuclear threat in Iran, Romney argued that the nation is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon" and that Mr. Obama had "wasted" the last four years.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, countered that the sanctions his administration has imposed on Iran have been working, leading to the nation to its "weakest point economically, strategically, militarily than in many years."
"As long as I'm President of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," he said.
The president defended his record on Iraq and Afghanistan, and argued that drawing down the wars there allowed him to refocus the administration's attention on "who actually killed us on 9/11."
"As a consequence, Al Qaeda's core leadership has been decimated," he said. "We're now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way, making sure that Afghans take responsibility for their own security. And that allows us also to rebuild alliances and make friends around the world to combat future threats."
The 90-minute debate, which is being held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., will be divided into six 15-minute segments. The topics include "America's role in the world," Afghanistan and Pakistan, "The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World," Israel and Iran, and "The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism," which has been allotted two segments.