Mitt Romney and President Obama contest a point during their second debate,… (Justin Lane, European Pressphoto…)
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — In a town-hall-style debate that was supposed to focus on questions from ordinary voters, President Obama and Mitt Romney circled each other on the stage and engaged in finger-pointing displays, arguing over energy, immigration and the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama ducked a question from audience member Kerry Ladka about who in the administration had denied a request for extra diplomatic security in Libya, and why. But Obama seized an opening when Romney challenged the president's statement that he had described the incident as an act of "terror" on the day after the attack.
"Is that what you're saying?" Romney said. "I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
Obama responded sharply, advising Romney to "get the transcript," as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN confirmed the accuracy of what Obama had said.
"He did in fact, sir," she told Romney, prompting Obama to respond, "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?"
According to a White House transcript of the Sept. 12 Rose Garden ceremony, Obama said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," though he did not specifically declare that the Libya attack had been an act of terrorism.
Obama entered the night under pressure to rescue his candidacy with a more assertive debate performance. In contrast to his distracted mien in the first debate, the president watched his rival intently, sometimes leaning toward him as he listened from his perch on a stool. Romney, who returned time and again to the struggles of the American people, addressed the president directly, demanding answers in a prosecutorial manner.
An exchange over energy policy turned into a rapid back-and-forth over Romney's claim that oil and gas production on public lands was down under Obama. The two men spoke over each other as they faced off onstage.
"You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking," Romney said, and Obama turned his back to him and walked away.
The second presidential debate of the general election campaign, scheduled to end after 90 minutes, lasted nearly an additional 10. It was during the final moments that Obama zeroed in on Romney's remark about the 47% of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year and therefore, Romney had said, relied on government to fulfill their needs, a group that includes millions of seniors on Social Security and veterans.
"I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds," said Obama, who had the last word. Romney could not respond, though he had said moments earlier, "I care about 100% of the American people."
From the outset, Obama was in an attacking mode. It was a signal that he had intended to engage his rival and defend himself far more aggressively than he did in the first debate, which recast the 2012 race after Romney was declared the winner. Polls taken since that event have shown Romney gaining and the contest statistically tied, three weeks before election day.
Though Obama's decision to engage his rival probably denied Romney a second consecutive debate win, the Republican stood his ground. He was at his best when he described the contours of a still struggling economy.
"We just can't afford four more years like the last four years," he said in response to audience member Michael Jones, who said he supported Obama in 2008 but that he was no longer as optimistic. "The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked. He's great as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision. That's wonderful, except we have a record to look at."
He challenged Obama over the high price of gasoline, the president's failure to advance immigration reform in his first year in office and his inability to reduce the government's budget deficit or see the jobless rate come down more sharply.
But Romney also appeared to contradict himself when he stated that all women should have access to contraception, though he supported an amendment in Congress that would allow employers to deny birth-control coverage to their workers. He refused to acknowledge that he had changed his position on restricting assault weapons and skirted a question about the hard-line stance he took during the GOP primaries on immigration, an issue the candidates debated for the first time Tuesday night.
Obama's wide-ranging assault — on everything from Romney's personal tax rate, his comments about "the 47%" and his work as a venture capitalist, to his policies on taxation, immigration, contraception and healthcare — were studded with specific details designed to portray the Republican challenger as an avatar of the wealthy.
"Gov. 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.