By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was billed as a debate on foreign policy, but that did not stop Democratic President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, from sparring repeatedly on issues that polls indicate are more important to voters: the economy and jobs.
After two contentious debates that helped to reshape the battle for the White House, the final encounter between Obama and Romney featured few actual differences on foreign policy.
Instead, the candidates detoured from the debate's agenda to reprise their frequent clashes over government budgets, school class sizes, the federal bailout of the auto industry and tax incentives for small business.
There was no aggressive Romney offensive, like the one in the October 3 debate that help boost the Republican in the polls so that as of Monday, he was virtually tied with Obama in the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll.
But Obama, who recovered from the first debate to turn in a well-reviewed performance in his second debate against Romney last week, stayed aggressive on Monday.
Obama accused the former Massachusetts governor of proposing wrong and reckless policies "at home and abroad" and reminded voters that Romney had praised former Republican President George W. Bush as a good economic steward.
Romney played it cautious in foreign policy areas where he has little experience but took every opportunity to turn the debate back to the economy and his criticism of Obama's economic leadership.
In the end, analysts said, it was a showdown that is unlikely to alter the course of the race to the November 6 election, as Romney did in the first debate.
"It was the kind of debate that is going to make both sides feel good," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.
"Obama has the edge on foreign policy, but that's not the issue that is pushing voters," he said. "And Romney made his points and was particularly effective at tying the economy into the debate about the strength of the country."
'AMERICA MUST LEAD'
Romney, the former head of a private equity firm who has made his business experience the centerpiece of his campaign, frequently linked the slow economic recovery to a need to strengthen U.S. standing abroad.
"In order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong," Romney said. "America must lead, and for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home."
Obama also frequently linked foreign and domestic policy, calling for efforts to encourage keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States, hire more teachers and push for energy independence.
Romney backed the substance of Obama's policy on a few foreign policy issues - Iran sanctions, Afghanistan, keeping the U.S. military out of Syria, using drones to target terrorists and the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"That was perhaps the most agreement we've heard in this long campaign," said Mitchell McKinney, a political communications specialist at the University of Missouri.
Romney even shied away from challenging Obama on his handling of the deadly September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, the administration's biggest foreign policy vulnerability.
Obama was more aggressive, accusing Romney of being "all over the map" on foreign policy and ridiculing his plan to bolster the Navy by building more ships.
"You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets," Obama said.
Romney countered: "Attacking me is not an agenda."
A 'LIMITED' IMPACT?
Polls showed Obama the narrow winner overall - a CNN snap poll gave the edge to him by 48 percent to 40 percent - and showed that a majority of voters believed that Romney passed the test of whether he could be commander-in-chief.
The CNN poll said 60 percent believed he could handle that responsibility, compared with 66 percent for Obama, who is the commander-in-chief.
Half of the voters polled said the debate would have no impact on their vote, while 24 percent said they were more likely to vote for Obama and 25 percent for Romney.
"The foreign policy debate has the least impact on voters, who are just not that knowledgeable on international affairs," said political scientist Jamie Chandler of Hunter College. "This debate is going to have a limited impact on the campaign."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Jim Loney)