A newly energetic and aggressive President Obama went directly after his Republican challenger from the first moment of their second debate to the last, attacking Mitt Romney’s business record, his positions on issues and his truthfulness during a heated 90-minute encounter.
“Gov. Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan: Make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” Obama said during his answer to the debate’s first question.
In his final words, he reprised Romney’s videotaped comments, made during a fundraising lunch in May, about 47% of Americans not paying federal income taxes and wanting to be dependent on the government.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47% of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country” and “people who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
“I want to fight for them,” he said.
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Within the debate’s first six minutes, Obama had twice accused Romney of saying things that were “not true.”
Romney, who had dominated the first debate two weeks ago, often appeared to be on the defensive, accusing Obama of distorting his positions. He repeatedly made efforts to return the debate to his strongest point — Obama’s economic record.
“The president has tried, but his policies haven’t worked,” he said, citing the nation’s continued high unemployment rate. “That’s what this election is about.”
The sharply worded exchanges bore out predictions that Obama would more aggressively challenge Romney than he did in their first debate. After a distinctly lackluster performance in the first debate, which left Democrats demoralized, Obama was under great pressure to try to create a turnaround.
As the debate became increasingly heated, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, several times had to admonish the candidates to stay on topic.
Each man aimed comments directly at voters that are key to their election efforts. Obama offered a long list of policies that his administration has designed to help women in the workplace and said Romney’s plans would deprive many working women of contraceptive coverage on their health plans, something Romney denied.
Romney stressed his desire to help small businesses and reduce their taxes and government regulations. “I know what it takes” to help the economy, he repeatedly declared.
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Romney asked Obama why he hadn’t delivered on his pledge to get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress — a grievance often voiced by Latino activists. “When the president ran for office, he said that he'd put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation” to reform the immigration system. “He didn't do it.”
Obama countered by reminding listeners of Romney’s positions on a range of immigration issues unpopular with Latino voters, including opposition to the Dream Act, advocacy of “self deportation” and support of Arizona’s strict law against illegal immigrants, which allows law enforcement officers to ask people for identification documents if they stop them for other purposes and believe they may be in the country illegally.
“If my daughter or yours looks to somebody like they're not a citizen, I don't want — I don't want to empower somebody like that,” Obama said.
The contentious debate covered virtually all the hot-button issues of the campaign, including the recent attack in Libya in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Obama said he had ordered the State Department to “beef up our security and procedures” in Libya and elsewhere, and had called for a full investigation of the nature of the attack and an all-out effort to hold accountable those responsible.
He also spoke in personal terms about the lives lost, before leaning on his broader foreign policy resume — mentioning the death of Osama bin Laden, the end of the war in Iraq and the wind-down of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan as evidence that he means what he says.
“I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there, because these are my folks. I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home,” he said.
He then sharply criticized Romney for his comments in the immediate aftermath of the attack. “You don’t turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not when it’s happening,” he said.