President Obama strove to make up lost ground with a feisty debate performance Tuesday night in which he and Mitt Romney, standing mere feet apart, challenged each other pointedly over everything from the economy to Libya.
The president took pains not to repeat the mistakes of his debate debut, a lackluster performance that even the president has described as an off night. With Romney gaining in the polls on the heels of that debate, Obama was visibly more aggressive on stage at Hofstra University – as the Republican nominee maintained the kind of steady and methodical approach he used during their first encounter.
Neither candidate was prepared to give ground. The president, as well as Romney, repeatedly cut off the moderator to squeeze in extra seconds of response time.
But Obama ventured into tougher territory this time, knocking Romney over his tenure at Bain Capital and making several thinly veiled references to his rival’s wealth. And, in perhaps the tensest moment of the night, the two candidates exchanged blows over the burgeoning controversy surrounding the Libya terror attack.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team … would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama told Romney. “That’s not what we do.”
The president was responding to suggestions by not just Romney but several Republicans on Capitol Hill that top administration officials trumped up the narrative that the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a “spontaneous” act, and played down accounts that it was a coordinated terror strike.
Romney, at the debate in Hempstead, N.Y., had also questioned Obama’s decision to go on a fundraising tour shortly after the attack.
“The president, the day after that happened, flies to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser,” Romney said. “These actions taken by a president and a leader have symbolic significance.”
The president, despite countering Romney’s criticism, at one point said he takes responsibility – a day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she’s responsible on the issue of security requests that were denied in the run-up to the attack. “Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me,” Obama said. “I’m the president, and I’m always responsible.”
Romney claimed the president was acknowledging that “the buck does stop at his desk” and he takes responsibility for “the failure” in providing security.
While the exchange on Libya may have been the most tense, the candidates were practically in each other’s faces on a range of issues – mostly involving the economy and taxes.
The president at one point mocked Romney’s five-point economic plan.
“Governor Romney says he’s got a five-point plan. Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” Obama said. “That’s been his philosophy in the private sector. That’s been his philosophy as a governor. And that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.”
Romney called Obama’s assessment “way off the mark.”
While Obama said Romney’s policies are “squeezing middle-class families,” the Republican nominee claimed the president’s policies do the same.
“The president’s policies have been exercised over the last four years, and they haven’t put Americans back to work,” Romney said.
The two candidates frequently interrupted each other, in what quickly turned out to be a feistier face-off than the first round.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking,” Romney said at one point to Obama.
“Candy, hold on a second,” Obama said later on in the debate to moderator Candy Crowley, before Romney plowed over him to tackle Obama’s criticism of his foreign investments.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney said.
“I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” Obama quipped.
Romney went on to note Obama also has investments outside the country, including in Chinese companies, despite similar charges that the president has leveled at Romney.
The debate revisited a familiar battle between the candidates over taxes and the budget, though the exchange this time was more heated.
Romney, as he has before, said he wants to lower tax rates across the board but make sure the top 5 percent don’t pay less than they’re paying now.
Obama, as he has before, claimed Romney is pushing a $5 trillion tax cut that either “blows up” the deficit or leads to a middle-class tax hike in order to work.
“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that,” Obama said. The president said that as an investor, Romney “wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people.”
Romney countered that “of course” his own numbers add up and claimed Obama’s account is “completely foreign to what my real plan is.”
“When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about $4 trillion in deficits over the last four years -- $5 trillion,” Romney said, reminding the audience that the federal budget deficit in each of the last four years has exceeded $1 trillion.
The reference to Planned Parenthood by Obama was one of many appeals – by both candidates – to female voters over the course of the debate. And it’s no accident.
The Republican nominee, since the last debate, has made considerable gains among that group – one of Obama’s core constituencies. While Obama appealed to women Tuesday on the issues of fair pay and contraceptive care, Romney made the case that he wants to help women by helping the economy grow.
Toward the end of the debate, Obama also tackled Romney’s controversial hidden-camera remarks in which he said 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes and believe they are “victims” – comments Obama didn’t mention in the first debate.
“Think about who he was talking about,” Obama said, claiming his opponent was referring to veterans and students and seniors.
Romney, who has acknowledged his comments were poorly phrased, said he cares about “100 percent of the American people.”
The stakes for Round 2 were high, and both campaigns are sure to come charging out of the debate. Since Obama’s lackluster debate debut on Oct. 3, a succession of national and battleground polls has shown Romney gaining ground and in some cases surpassing Obama. The most recent evidence was a new national Gallup survey showing Romney leading with 50 percent to Obama's 46 percent among likely voters.
Tuesday's town hall-style format at the debate allowed for a 90-minute discussion across a range of foreign and domestic issues. The face-off follows the vice presidential debate last week, where Vice President Biden was decidedly more aggressive than Obama in his opening performance. The vice president, though, also took heat for his demeanor – laughing at and interrupting Republican opponent Paul Ryan repeatedly over the course of their debate.
The final presidential debate will take place Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla., focusing on foreign policy.