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The last debate: Defense and the sequester that 'will not happen'

Evan Vucci/AP

In the third and final presidential debate, from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., the focus was supposed to be on foreign policy. But it turned out to be the most substantive of the three discussions between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about the federal government's power, role and budget. The looming budget sequester actually became a debating point, and there were specific references to cybersecurity, veterans and the size of the military. Here's how things unfolded:

10:28: Romney: "I love teachers." But "I don't want to have the federal government pushing itself deeper and deeper into our schools."

10:23: The debate pivots from China back to domestic economic policy. Romney: "I like American cars." Raps Obama administration for investing in green energy companies rather than encouraging private sector investment. The two candidates end up arguing over who the fact checkers will support more after the debate.

10:05: On Afghanistan, Romney promises troops will come home by end of 2014. Obama: "We're now in a position to transition out ... in responsible fashion." He then makes the first mention of veterans in the debate, saying efforts must be made to make sure they have jobs, and get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

10:02: Obama trying to score some points with getting bin Laden: "Those decisions are not always popular."

9:50: Lots of back and forth on whether Obama went on an "apology tour" at the beginning of his administration.

9:43: Romney says the Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. He mentions sequestration again, and says the Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947. He decries the change away from being able to fight two conflicts at once. 

Obama: "The sequester is not something I proposed. It's something Congress has proposed. It will not happen." On the the Navy being smaller than in 1917: "Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

9:40: Romney on paying for military cuts: "We're going to cut about 5 percent of the discretionary budget. That's excluding defense." Promises balanced budget within eight to 10 years. Says details are on his website. "There are a number of things that sound good, but frankly we just can't afford them. We take program after program that we don't have to have" and eliminate them. Others are devolved to states. 

Obama: "I worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on what wer'e going to need in the future to keep us safe." He accuses Romney of seeking $2 trillion in military spending the Defense Department doesn't want. Says "when it comes to our military, what we have to think about is not, you know, just budgets, we’ve got to think about capabilities. We need to be thinking about cybersecurity. We need to be talking about space."

9:35: They're now in a full domestic policy pivot, with both candidates using the "we need to be strong at home" loophole to introduce everything from tax reform to class sizes. Romney touts Massachusetts' students achievements in standardized tests. He should know: He took one.

9:29: Romney: "We have got to strengthen our military down the road. ... We don't know what the bad guys are going to throw at us." 

9:25: Obama tries to do the domestic policy pivot: "There are some things we're going to have to do at home as well." Says "nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan" has led U.S. to neglect building economy at home. Romney obliges: "We want a peaceful planet.. ... For us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong at home. [But] we have weakened our economy."

Romney also makes the case for strong a military; criticizes "the idea of $1 trillion in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts." 

9:18: Romney on Syria: "We don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict." Calls for "very effective leadership effort." Accuses Obama of saying, "we'll let the U.N. deal with it." Obama: "We are playing a leadership role." On Libya, accuses Romney of saying effort to remove Moammar Ghadafi was "mission creep." Romney reiterates that he wants no U.S. military involvement in Syria, now or in the future.

9:15: Obama: "It is absoluely true that we cannot just meet these challenges militarily." Both candidates made it through the Libya question without really addressing the specifics of what happened there recently.

9:10: Obama tries a zinger: "The 1980s are calling and they want their foreign policy back. ... The Cold War's been over for 20 years. ... We need strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership." Romney: "Attacking me is not an agenda." 

9:05 p.m. ET: The discussion starts, not surprisingly, with Libya. Romney to Obama: "I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden... but we can't kill our way out of this mess." Obama goes to the "first job as commander in chief is to keep the American people safe" line that all incumbent presidents get to use. 

Obama on Libya: Accomplished goal of helping overthrow dictator with "less than what we spent in two weeks on Iraq." Says Romney's strategy has been "all over the map." Romney counters that his strategy is to "go after the bad guys." On Middle East: "We have to help these nations create civi societies."

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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