President Obama — a punching bag in the first presidential debate — became a sledge hammer in his second showdown Tuesday night against Republican Mitt Romney. In what might prove to be the decisive 90 minutes of the presidential campaign, both flashed moments of seething anger during the town hall-style forum in New York.
Their raised voices and intimidating glares conveyed a sense of mutual disdain for the other. The dislike went well beyond their differences on tax, energy, immigration, and the recent al Qaeda-affiliated attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The former Massachusetts governor has been climbing in the polls after successfully positioning himself as a champion of the middle class during their first Oct. 3 debate. Obama swung hard to stop that assent, labeling Romney—who co-founded the private equity firm Bain Capital—as a conservative extremist who will coddle the wealthy.Complete Second Presidential Town Hall Debate 2012: Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney – Oct 16, 2012
“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. “That’s been his philosophy in the private sector. 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, layoff the workers, strip away their pensions, and still make money.”
A CNN poll of registered voters who watched the debate indicates the gambit might have worked. Forty-six percent chose Obama as the victor, with 39 percent for Romney.
Republican pollster John Zogby gave the win to the Democratic incumbent. “Obama was on fire,” he said, while Romney “lacked details and simply got caught in representing some ideas that were very different from the Mitt Romney who debated 19 times with his GOP opponents.”
A more assertive Obama trades barbs with Romney
President Obama was under pressure to perform dramatically better at this debate — held at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y.—than the one held two weeks ago. Gov. Romney’s energetic performance at that first debate quickly boosted him in the polls, with some recent measures showing he and the president in a virtual tie among likely voters.
Romney kept up his Denver demeanor, attacking Obama on his jobs record, failure to pass immigration reform, policies in the Middle East, and other issues. But this time, instead of simply repeating portions of his stump speech, Obama was ready with specific retorts and counter-attacks. The president frequently accused Romney of twisting facts, occasionally interrupting him as he spoke.
At one point, the debate almost became a shouting match over whether President Obama had cut back oil extraction from public lands. Obama repeatedly said Romney was lying about his claim that oil production was down, pointedly saying, “Not true, Governor Romney.” (Politifact ranked a similar claim by a conservative super PAC “half true.”) Feeling the heat, moderator Candy Crowley took the candidates to another topic.
The 90-minute town hall-style debate got personal at times. Romney took a detour on an answer on immigration reform to address Obama campaign claims that his personal fortune is invested in China and shielded from taxes. “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” he asked, implying the president is also unaware of the nature of his investments. “You know, I don’t look at my pension,” Obama retorted, adding, “It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.”
Obama returned more than once to the topic of Romney’s wealth, saying Romney sees nothing unfair about millionaires paying the same tax rate as a nurse or other middle-class worker. Later in the debate, Romney criticized Obama for attending political events so soon after the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed, and also said Obama’s campaign unfairly painted him as a villain. Obama closed the debate by mentioning Romney’s leaked comments that half the country is dependent on government.
Both candidates appeared comfortable with the more intimate town hall-style, during which an audience of 80 undecided voters, handpicked by polling organization Gallup, watched and asked questions. Audience members picked by Crowley asked the candidates about immigration reform, jobs, gun control, the gender pay gap, and other issues.
In answer to a question about the economy from college student Jeremy Epstein, Romney said if elected he could guarantee Epstein would find employment when he graduates in 2014 because of his economic policies. “I’m going to make sure you get a job,” Romney said. Obama answered a question about the pay gap with a personal story about his mother’s struggle to make ends meet while raising two children on her own.