HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney aggressively challenged each other Tuesday night in their second debate, with more than 90 minutes of sharp attacks, interrupted answers and testy exchanges over the economy, taxes, immigration and energy.
The president’s partisans were likely pleased with his tough-minded rebound from his tepid and much-maligned performance in the first debate earlier this month. Romney backers will be pleased with his continued willingness to confront his rival.
Trying hard to erase the memory of his initial debate performance, Obama came on strong Tuesday, forcefully challenging Romney’s stands.
Romney countered just as vigorously by attempting to reinforce the confident, determined image he showed during their first matchup. The Republican challenger also aimed to show that his conservatism has a compassionate hue and to dispel the notion that he’s a wealthy, out-of-touch patrician.
Their second and perhaps pivotal debate had Obama and Romney fighting constantly, sometimes interrupting, and sometimes talking and correcting each other at the same time.
Obama began the debate by quickly attacking Romney on his economic plan, his solution to high gasoline prices and his failure to support the auto industry bailout. Romney recommended bankruptcy for the automakers in 2008.
Don’t believe Romney has a five-point plan to help the economy, Obama said. He has a one-point plan, he said – “you can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers and still make money . . . that’s exactly the philosophy we’ve seen in place for the last decade.”
Romney fired right back, and would time and time again.
"It’s not going to be like the last four years,” he said. “The middle class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce. I know what it takes to bring them back, and I’m going to do that."
The candidates debated in a town hall format that allowed them to walk around the stage, address the voters directly and stand almost next to each other as they parried back and forth. Questions came from undecided voters from the New York City area selected by the Gallup Organization. CNN’s Candy Crowley, the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate, regularly followed up the participants’ questions and candidates’ answers with questions of her own, pressing for more detail.
The stakes for this second meeting were high. Romney is credited with winning the first faceoff Oct. 3, and another stumble by Obama could have doused any momentum his campaign spent months to build.
But the president was much feistier from the outset Tuesday night in a debate that seemed to include every incendiary issue of the domestic agenda.
Foreign policy only came up once, but it involved a question that’s dogged the Obama administration for more than a month.
The president was asked why his administration did not provide more security in Libya prior to a terrorist attack that led to the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, at the Benghazi consulate.
Last week, a State Department official told Congress that she had received requests for more security in Benghazi but that she had rejected them because the department wanted to train Libyans to handle the duties.
Obama had a stern look. "No one is more concerned about their safety than I am,’’ he said.
Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week said she took responsibility for the administration handling of the attack, Obama said that he was ultimately responsible. "I’m the president and I’m always responsible,” Obama said.
Romney blamed Obama for his administration’s constantly fluctuating explanation of the attack and said the president was too busy campaigning to fully deal with it. For days, senior officials had painted the attack as in tandem with mob violence that broke out in other parts of the Islamic world that day in response to an anti-Muslim video.
“The suggestion that anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said.
On domestic issues, Romney argued that the nation needs to be more energy independent, and he explained his support of more aggressive exploitation of domestic oil, gas, coal and other resources, as well as approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. "We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada," Romney said. "How in the world the president said ‘no’ to the pipeline I’ll never know."
Obama supports federal investments in clean energy research, but he backs only limited offshore drilling and has rejected the Keystone pipeline for now, though has said he will reconsider.
"We’re drilling more on public lands than the previous administration, and the previous president was an oil man," Obama said.
The candidates also sparred over taxes. Romney, who has proposed a 20 percent across-the-board income tax rate cut, vowed that higher-income people would pay no less than they do now, while middle-class consumers would get a break.
“And I will not – I will not under any circumstances, reduce the share that’s being paid by the highest income taxpayers. And I will not, under any circumstances, increase taxes on the middle class. The president’s spending; the president’s borrowing will cost this nation to have to raise taxes on the American people. Not just at the high end,” Romney insisted.
Obama scoffed. “Gov. Romney has a different philosophy,” he said.
The president explained his view, with a jab at Romney. “So what I’ve said is, your first $250,000 worth of income, no change. And that means 98 percent of American families, 97 percent of small businesses; they will not see a tax increase. I’m ready to sign that bill right now,” Obama said. “The only reason it’s not happening is because Gov. Romney’s allies in Congress have held the 98 percent hostage because they want tax breaks for the top 2 percent.”
Republicans have consistently blocked Democratic efforts to impose higher taxes on the wealthy.
Congress’ bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has found that even if most popular deductions were eliminated, such changes would only fund a 4 percent income tax cut.
The candidates battled over immigration. Romney in January urged illegal immigrants to “self-deport,” and he said in Iowa during his caucus campaign he would veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some young immigrants.
Tuesday, his rhetoric was softer.
“The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident,” he said.
Romney criticized Obama for doing little to push comprehensive immigration legislation. “Now when the president ran for office, he said that he’d put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation – he’d file a bill in his first year that would reform our – our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration. He didn’t do it,” Romney said.
Obama countered by recalling Romney’s harder line. “His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, ‘We’re going to encourage self-deportation,’” the president said.
Another questioner asked Romney how he differed from former President George W. Bush. Both are Republicans, and Bush left office in 2009 with a dismal approval rating in the midst of a deep recession.
"President Bush and I are different people and these are different times,” he said.
Romney listed several the ways the two differ – most importantly, his policies on the economy, his encouragement of small businesses, his plan to increase trade and balance the budget.
Obama disputed Romney, saying Romney and Bush are similar on the economy, but that Romney has gone to a more "extreme place" on non-financial issues, including immigration and Planned Parenthood funding.
The talk quickly turned back to domestic issues, as the candidates were asked about gun control. Hofstra is on New York’s Long Island, where 19 years ago Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s husband was killed by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad and her son was seriously wounded.
Obama has not spoken about guns much as president. He told voters in 2008, “I’m not going to take away your guns.” The website for his 2008 campaign said he supports “making guns in this country childproof” and making the assault-weapons ban permanent. The National Rifle Association has charged Obama with being anti-gun, and earlier this month it endorsed Romney.
After the deadly July movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., Obama promised to lead a national debate about gun control, saying he thinks many gun owners would agree that “AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers,” not civilians.
Romney supported policies during his run for Senate in 1994 that he said weren’t “going to make me the hero of the NRA.” Romney joined the group in 2006. In 2007, he said that as president, he would have signed an assault-weapons ban if the bill came to his desk. A few months later, he said he didn’t “support any gun control legislation,” and reiterated that point Tuesday.