SPIRITED SKIRMISH; Obama; after Weak Outing in First Debate, President Aggressively Attacks Romney's Policies.; Romney; GOP Contender Stands His Ground, Portrays Himself as a Compassionate Conservative; ELECTIONS 2012: Presidential Debate - POLITICS
Steve Peoples; David Espo, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - An aggressive President Barack Obama accused challenger Mitt Romney of peddling a "sketchy deal" to fix the U.S. economy and playing politics with the deadly terrorist attack in Libya in a debate crackling with energy and emotion Tuesday night, just three weeks before the election.
Romney pushed back hard, saying the middle class "has been crushed over the last four years" under Obama's leadership and that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find work. He contended that 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 Romney said that he had 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."
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 midsentence, drawing a gasp from the audience. He said the president's policies had failed to jump-start 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.
Obama noted Romney's business background to rebut his opponent's plans to fix the economy and prevent federal deficits from climbing ever higher. …