By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink - 10/17/12 03:49 AM EDT
President Obama and Mitt Romney traded heavy verbal blows Tuesday night in their second face-to-face confrontation, repeatedly approaching each other like prize fighters and trying to talk over each other's answers.
The 90-minute presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York state was intensely aggressive and more closely matched than their first debate two weeks ago, largely because the president was more animated and assertive.
Obama's performance enthused Democrats, who have watched public opinion polls shift significantly against the president this month.
Romney was also combative, evidently determined not to be dominated or to lose his recent poll momentum. It was a vastly different performance for Obama, who was accused of being listless when the two men met in Denver during the first presidential debate.
At one particular moment, during the start of the debate, Obama and Romney faced off in an intense stare-down, coming just a few feet apart after the governor questioned the president on cutting drilling permits on federal lands and waters.
As the debate focused on energy policy, the confrontation reached a boil, with the candidates for a moment shouting at each other in the center of the stage.
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Romney challenged Obama, badgering him to disprove his assertion that Obama's administration had cut licenses and permits on federal waters by more than half.
After Obama said he had instituted a "use it or lose it" policy on federal lands, and seized permits that were not being used, Romney quickly argued the "production on government land of oil is down."
Romney often interrupted moderator Candy Crowley to insist that he get a chance to respond to questions. On one occasion he also sought to silence Obama, pointing at him and saying, "you'll get your chance in a minute."
There was a rocky moment for Romney when he argued that it had taken the president two weeks to call the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an act of terror.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record," Romney said. "Because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
The president told Romney to “get the transcript” of his remarks the day after the attack, and moderator Candy Crowley backed up the president, saying, “he did, in fact, call it an act of terror.”
“Could you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama said.
Those were just some of the numerous attacks that arose as the answers to most question turned into bickering between the two presidential contenders. The two argued on nearly every issue, ranging from the auto bailout, energy, tax plans, contraception, equal pay for women, immigration, Libya and free trade.
In their squabble over trade, the president sought to criticize Romney for his investments in Chinese companies. But Romney quickly tried to turn the conversation.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney said.
Obama fired back with a zinger: "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long.”
Both candidates sought to hammer home a message that has been prominent in the campaign — that their opponent is not telling the truth. Time and again Obama said Romney’s statements were “just not true,” and Romney hit back in kind when he said Obama was describing his tax plans falsely.
"I will not under any circumstances reduce the share that's being paid by the highest-income taxpayers," Romney said. "And I will not, under any circumstances, increase taxes on the middle class."
Obama blasted Romney for not explaining what deductions he would specifically eliminate, arguing that Romney would reject his plan if it was proposed to him as a business venture.
"If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, 'Here I want to spend 7 or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal," Obama said. "And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up."
The president repeatedly insinuated that Romney’s plans looked to benefit the wealthy.
“Gov. Romney says he's got 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.”
For his part, Romney targeted the president’s record on the economy, deficits and debts.
“What you’re seeing in this country is 23 million people struggling to find a job, and a lot of them ... have been looking for work for a long, long, long, long time,” Romney said. “The president’s policies have been exercised over the last four years, and they haven’t put Americans back to work.”
Romney was put on the defensive by a question from a woman who asked how he would be different from George W. Bush. Throughout the campaign, the Obama campaign has sought to link the two men, saying Romney would bring the country back to the "failed policies" of the former president.
“President Bush and I are different people,” Romney said. “And these are different times.”
The debate's final question provided the first mention of Romney's secretly recorded "47 percent" comment at a fundraiser earlier this year.
Asked to "debunk" what they considered to be the biggest misperception against themselves, Romney said that the president's campaign had tried to characterize him "as someone who’s very different" than who he is.
"I care about 100 percent of the American people," Romney said. "I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future."
The defensive posture looked to undercut the inevitable attack that came in Obama's concluding comments.
"I believe Gov. Romney is a good man," Obama said. "Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country consider themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about," going on to name veterans, students and Social Security recipients, among others.
The candidates also spent a considerable part of the evening discussing women’s issues, using a question on fair pay to discuss the Lilly Ledbetter Act, contraception and the economy.
"Women are increasingly the breadwinners of the family," Obama said. "This is not just a woman's issue; this is a family issue."
Romney responded by stressing his efforts to hire more women for his gubernatorial Cabinet.
Post-debate, both sides claimed victory for their candidate.
But instant polls conducted after the debate gave the slight edge to the president, with a survey of uncommitted voters by CBS News giving the president a 37 percent to 30 percent advantage and a similar survey by CNN saying Obama won 46 percent to 39.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan sent an email to supporters, saying: "Mitt crushed it again at tonight's debate. He showed America that on November 6th, there is a clear choice: four more years of what we already know hasn't worked, or a new path that leads to a real recovery."
And a former Obama aide said of the president: "I think LL Cool J said it best: 'Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years.' "