HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- An aggressive President Barack Obama accused challenger Mitt Romney of favoring a one-point plan to help the rich in America and playing politics with the deadly terrorist attack in Libya in a Tuesday night debate crackling with energy and emotion just three weeks before the election.
Romney pushed back hard, saying the middle class has been crushed over the last four years and that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find work. He said the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was part of an unraveling of the administration s foreign policy.
The president was feistier from the outset than he had been in their initial encounter two weeks ago, when he turned in a listless performance that sent shudders through his supporters and helped fuel a rise by Romney in opinion polls nationally and in some battleground states.
Obama and Romney disagreed, forcefully and repeatedly about taxes, the bailout of the auto industry, measures to reduce the deficit, energy, pay equity for women and health care as well as foreign policy across 90 minutes of a town-hall style debate.
Immigration prompted yet another clash, Romney saying Obama had failed to pursue the comprehensive legislation he promised at the dawn of his administration, and the president saying Republican obstinacy made a deal impossible.
Romney gave as good as he got.
You ll get your chance in a moment. I m still speaking, the former Massachusetts governor said at one point while Obama was mid-sentence, drawing a gasp from the audience. He said the president s policies had failed to jumpstart the economy and had cramped energy production.
The open-stage format left the two men free to stroll freely across a red-carpeted stage, and they did. Their clashes crackled with energy and tension, and the crowd watched raptly as the two sparred while struggling to appear calm and affable before a national television audience.
While most of the debate was focused on policy differences, there was one more-personal moment, when Obama said Romney had investments in China.
Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Romney interrupted.
You know, I don t look at my pension. It s not as big as yours, shot back Obama to his wealthier rival.
Under the format agreed to in advance, members of an audience of 82 uncommitted voters posed questions to the president and his challenger.
Nearly all of them concerned domestic policy until one raised the subject of the recent death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in a terrorist attack at an American post in Benghazi. Romney said it took Obama a long time to admit the episode had been a terrorist attack, but Obama said he had said so the day after in an appearance in the Rose Garden outside the White House.
When moderator Candy Crowley of CNN said the president had in fact done so, Obama, prompted, Say that a little louder, Candy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken responsibility for the death of Ambassador L. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, but Obama said bluntly, I m the president, and I m always responsible.
Romney said it was troubling that Obama continued with a campaign event in Las Vegas on the day after the attack in Libya, an event the Republican said had symbolic significance and perhaps even material significance.
Obama seemed to bristle. He said it was offensive for anyone to allege that he or anyone in his administration had used the incident for political purposes. That s not what I do.
According to the transcript, Obama said on Sept. 12, No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.
One intense exchange focused on competing claims about whether energy production is increasing or slowing. Obama accused Romney of misrepresenting what has happened a theme he returned to time and again. Romney strode across the stage to confront Obama face to face, just feet from the audience.
Both men pledged a better economic future to a young man who asked the first question, a member of a pre-selected audience of 82 uncommitted voters.
Then the president s determination to show a more aggressive side became evident.
Rebutting his rival s claim to a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama said, 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. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.
That s been his philosophy in the private sector, Obama said of his rival. That s been his philosophy as governor. That s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate. You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less.
You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions and you still make money. That s exactly the philosophy that we ve seen in place for the last decade, the president said in a scorching summation.
Unable to respond at length because of the debate s rules, Romney said the accusations were way off the mark.
But moments later, he reminded the national television audience of the nation s painfully slow recovery from the worst recession in decades.
There are 23 million people struggling to find a job. ... The president s policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven t put America back to work, he said. We have fewer people working today than when he took office.
Economic growth has been slow throughout Obama s term in office, and unemployment only recently dipped below 8 percent for the first time since he moved into the White House. Romney noted that if out-of-work Americans who no longer look for jobs were counted, the unemployment rate would be 10.7 percent.
Both men had rehearsed extensively for the encounter, a turnabout for Obama.
I had a bad night, the president conceded, days after he and Romney shared a stage for the first time, in Denver. His aides made it known he didn t intend to be as deferential to his challenger this time, and the presidential party decamped for a resort in Williamsburg, Va., for rehearsals that consumed the better part of three days.
Romney rehearsed in Massachusetts and again after arriving on Long Island on debate day, with less to make up for.
Asked Tuesday night by one member of the audience how he would differ from former President George W. Bush, the last Republican to hold the office, Romney said, We are different people and these are different times.
He said he would attempt to balance the budget, something Bush was unsuccessful in doing, get tougher on China and work more aggressively to expand trade.
Obama jumped in with his own predictions not nearly as favorable to the man a few feet away on stage. He said the former president didn t attempt to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood or turn Medicare into a voucher system.
Though the questions were from undecided voters inside the hall in a deeply Democratic state the audience that mattered most watched on television and was counted in the tens of millions. Crucially important: viewers in the nine battlegrounds where the race is likely to be settled.
The final debate, next Monday in Florida, will be devoted to foreign policy.
Opinion polls made the race a close one, with Obama leading in some national surveys and Romney in others. Despite the Republican s clear gains in surveys in recent days, the president led in several polls of Wisconsin and Ohio, two key Midwestern battlegrounds where Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are campaigning heavily.
Barring a last-minute shift in the campaign, Obama is on course to win states and the District of Columbia that account for 237 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The same is true for Romney in states with 191 electoral votes.
The remaining 110 electoral votes are divided among the hotly contested battleground states of Florida (29), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13) New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Ohio (18) and Wisconsin (10).
Obama has campaigned in the past several days by accusing Romney of running away from some of the conservative positions he took for tax cuts and against abortion earlier in the year when he was trying to win the Republican nomination.
Maybe you re wondering what to believe about Mitt Romney, says one ad, designed to remind voters of the Republican s strong opposition to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.
Romney countered by stressing both in person and through his television advertising the slow pace of the economic recovery, which has left growth sluggish and unemployment high throughout Obama s term. Joblessness recently declined to 7.8 percent, dropping below 8 percent for the first time since the president took office.
Highlights from the 2nd presidential debate:
Highlights from the presidential debate Tuesday night between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, just three weeks from the Nov. 6 election.
Romney and Obama tangled for the first time face to face and heatedly over the administration s handling of the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Romney accused Obama of taking too long to refer to the attack as a terrorist strike, and of turning too quickly to politics after the tragedy. Obama later pointed out that he referred to acts of terror the very next day.
Romney told the audience: On the day following the assassination of the United States ambassador, the first time that s happened since 1979, when when we have four Americans killed there, when apparently we didn t know what happened, that the president, the day after that happened, flies to Las Vegas for a political fund-raiser.
Visibly upset, Obama said he went to the Rose Garden the day after the attack to pledge that he would find out what happened, and later met with grieving families.
And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That s not what we do. That s not what I do as president, that s not what I do as commander in chief.
Obama the aggressor
Obama came out swinging, striking immediately at Romney s opposition to the Democrat s handling of the auto industry bailout.
Obama was seen as having missed opportunities to make gains in the first debate with Romney two weeks ago. The Republican was viewed as having won the debate.
In their second meeting, Obama accused Romney of letting the oil companies write the energy policies and said Romney had gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy than George W. Bush, the most recent Republican president.
Obama s style was also much more confrontational. He addressed Romney directly, unlike their first debate in Denver, when Obama almost exclusively addressed the moderator and the audience.
And several times Obama accused Romney of being untruthful, repeating what you re saying is just not true.
Back and forth
Not only was Obama more aggressive, the president and Romney slowly circled around each other at times standing face to face in moves that seemed more choreographed by a boxing trainer than a debate coach.
Their exchanges were equally animated. At times they spoke loudly over each other as moderator Candy Crowley tried to keep order.
Gov. Romney, keep it short, Crowley said.
Just going to make a point, Romney shot back.
I m used to being interrupted, Obama quipped.
At one point, Romney confronted Obama over comments Obama made regarding Romney s investments.
At another, Obama, watching the moderator for his turn, popped up off his stool, only to sit back down as Romney continued.
Obama and Romney are vying for key female supporters and their responses during the debate showed it.
Responding to a question about pay equity for women, Obama noted that the first piece of legislation he signed made it easier for women to seek the same pay as men for doing the same work.
Romney said that as governor of Massachusetts, his administration had a number of women in senior leadership positions. Seeking qualified women, Romney said he went to a number of women s groups and said, Can you help us find folks? and they brought us whole binders full of women.
Romney made an economic case, saying that too many women have lost their jobs or fallen into poverty and that growing the economy would help women.
The president questioned Romney s commitment to women s health care, pointing to the Republican s vow to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. He said health care was a pocket book issue for women and families. These are not just women s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues, Obama said.
The second debate had plenty of sharp, one-liners.
At one point, Romney asked the president if he had looked at his pension lately. Referencing Romney s wealth, Obama shot back: I don t look at my pension. It s not as big as yours so it doesn t take as long.
Romney said Obama s handling of the economy had hurt millions of families. The middle class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce, Romney said, a line that he returned to later in the evening.
Obama offered another zinger when he accused Romney of hiding the specifics of his tax plan. We haven t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood.
47 percent emerges
After the first debate, many Democrats said they were surprised that Obama never brought up Romney s videotaped remarks that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government. This time, Obama turned it into his closing statement.
Asked about misperceptions of their candidacies, Romney said Obama s campaign had tried to turn him into something he s not and told the audience that he cares about 100 percent of the American people.
When it came time for Obama to respond, the president pounced, saying that when Romney said behind closed doors that 47 percent considered themselves victims, think about who he was talking about. He rattled off a litany of key voting groups: the elderly receiving Social Security, veterans, students and soldiers.
Obama said he wanted to fight for them ... If they succeed, I believe this country succeeds.