Obama goes on offensive in debate
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney clashed Tuesday evening over economic opportunity, immigration reform, and foreign policy in their second debate, an event that offered perils and possibilities for both candidates now locked in an essentially even race with three weeks to go before Election Day.
The debate's first questioner, Jeremy Epstein, a college student who will graduate soon, asked Romney how he would ensure that he could get a job and pay off student loans.
"We have to make it easier for kids to afford college and once they graduate from college, to get a job," Romney said, coming down off his stool in the town-hall setting of the debate. "What's happened over the last four years has been very, very hard for America's young people."
But Obama, while agreeing that improving higher education is essential to the nation's economic future, said he wants to create manufacturing jobs like those in the auto industry that he helped preserve with a bailout. He noted that Romney opposed the federal money that he said kept the auto companies open through bankruptcy.
"Governor Romney talks about a five point plan," Obama said. "Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan, he has a one point plan," suggesting that his economic program was built around tax cuts and other benefits for the wealthiest Americans.
The sharp early exchange set the tone for a debate that exceeded its 90-minute time allotment, and pointed to a performance by Obama far more engaged and prepared than the one he turned in during their first encounter nearly two weeks ago.
The questions ranged over a host of issues - including the Libya attack, tax policy, gun control, and women's issues - and provided some angry exchanges and clear distinctions between the two candidates.
The two candidates argued face-to-face at times, the first early in the debate over Obama's record on allowing federal land to be used for oil drilling and other energy production. They came off their stools to debate the question, interrupting each other in a testy exchange.
As Romney accused Obama of being responsible for high gas prices, Obama said what became a frequent early refrain: "That's just not true, Governor Romney, that's just not true."
The stakes and level of uncertainty as the candidates took the stage remained unusually high after a puzzling first debate performance by the president, a gifted speech maker who appeared flat-footed and defensive next to Romney in Denver.
Since that evening, a race that had appeared to be Obama's to lose has shifted in measurable ways toward Romney, as polls tighten nationally and in more than a half dozen states that will decide the election. Each candidate arrived at the Hofstra University campus in Hempstead, N.Y., about 25 miles east of New York City, with a different mission.
Obama, who has been preparing for several days in the relative seclusion of Williamsburg, Va., looked to reassure an agitated Democratic base by defending his record and appraising Romney's policy proposals in a far more pointed way than he attempted to do in Denver. Vice President Biden's spirited, if at times theatrical, performance against Rep. Paul Ryan in their debate last week helped calm the president's restless supporters.
Before the second prime-time audience he has faced in two weeks, Obama argued far more aggressively on behalf of his record and spoke more critically about Romney's, looking to convince solid Democrats and the still-persuadable women, Latinos and other undecided voters that he is capable of challenging his Republican rival on tax, energy and education policy and of guiding the country through a second term.
Romney also spoke forcefully on behalf of his policies, frequently challenged by Obama, and against the president's economic record in the first half of the debate. His goal was to convince many of the voters who have given him a second look after the Denver debate that his appeal is more than just the result of a bad night from the president.
Romney, who picked up deficit-hawk H. Ross Perot's endorsement Tuesday, was sharp in the first debate. But on Tuesday he was less able to unsettle the president, who was thrown off in Denver when Romney appeared to disavow his proposals for a broad tax cut should he win.
Obama said the former Massachusetts governor had presented a false picture of his plans, and he sought to deepen that argument through Tuesday's debate.
"I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people, I'm looking to cut taxes for middle class people," Romney said. "For me this is about jobs. I want to get the economy going again."
Obama said the proposed tax cuts, as he has before, cost an estimated $5 trillion. But he made clearer than he did in Denver that Romney has not detailed how he would pay for the cuts, "other than (firing) Big Bird and cutting Planned Parenthood."
"The math doesn't add up," Obama said, adding that if passed it would either "blow up" the deficit or mean fewer tax breaks for middle-class Americans.
Romney said "of course they add up," saying that as a former business executive he knows when numbers work and when they don't.
"Speaking of numbers that don't add up, how about $4 trillion in deficit?" Romney said, referring to the accumulated deficit during Obama's time in office.
Both candidates spoke strongly in favor of supporting women, a particularly pivotal and contested group of voters this year, in the work place.
Obama touted the fact he signed equal-pay legislation, know as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, within weeks of taking office.
"I have two daughters and I want to make sure they have the same opportunities than anyone's sons have," Obama said.
Nearly 70 million television viewers watched the first debate, and the impression left with many was one of an energetic Republican challenger, who presented a different set of ideas for reviving the economy, and of a tired, mostly passive president who stumbled at times describing even some of his signature achievements to shore up the economy and remake health care.
In the hours before the debate, Romney's Republican proxies filtered through the press filing center on the university grounds. But they did so with less urgency than many of Obama's Democratic surrogates, reflecting a GOP confidence heading into the debate absent from the incumbent's side.
"They have to," said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the republican national Committee. "We don't. We're winning."
The format for the second debate was different from the first.
Rather than stand behind podiums and take questions only from a moderator, Obama and Romney were challenged by members of the audience, many of them undecided voters from the Long Island suburbs around Hofstra.
Although many analysts believed the town-hall style would benefit Obama, who has held many such events during his term in office, the format posed its own set of challenges.
For one, it proved to be unpredictable. The questions were culled by moderator Candy Crowley, a veteran political reporter with CNN, who looked to cover as much ground as possible during the debate. The Commission on Presidential Debates said before the debate it hoped to have about 13 questions.
Crowley asked follow-up questions, despite some initial misgivings within each candidate's camp over allowing her to do so. Her occasional interventions added another element of uncertainty to a high-stakes event.
Audience members also asked the presidential candidates about foreign policy, a subject omitted from the first debate.
The first to do so, Susan Katz, said she feared that Romney would follow President George W. Bush's foreign policy, which included two wars.
"I'm not George Bush, we are different people," Romney said, adding that "my priority is jobs." "President Bush had a very different task at a very different time."
Romney said one of his foreign policy priorities is to "get tough on China," which Obama challenged by citing Romney's time as the chief executive of Bain Capital, which invested in Chinese manufacturing companies.
"Governor Romney, you are the last person who will get tough on China," Obama said, citing his own decision to impose a tariff on Chinese-made tires to address unfair trade practices that he said created jobs.
Obama has generally scored well with the public on his management of foreign affairs, a strength he sought to drive home in May with a series of ads and appearances celebrating the one-year anniversary of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
But Romney has gained on Obama on the question of foreign policy management after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The administration initially blamed the violence on protests that flared across the Middle East over a YouTube video disparaging the prophet Muhammad. But evidence has since emerged, as well as earlier security requests from U.S. diplomats in Libya, that the attacks were orchestrated by the al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa.
On the eve of the second debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she took "full responsibility" for the American deaths, amid mostly Republican claims that Obama has sought to cover up the facts around the assault to protect his assertion that al-Qaeda is a vastly depleted force.
Romney, who was criticized for stepping in too early to condemn Obama's handling of the Benghazi attack, looked ahead of time to press Obama on the issue and his broader management of the uprisings remaking the Arab World.
But any criticism would have to be calibrated. Earlier this week, Jan Stevens, the father of the slain ambassador, told Bloomberg News in an interview that "it would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue."
One questioner, Kerry Ladka, asked Obama to say who in the State Department turned down the request for extra security before the fatal attack. Obama said, as president, he was responsible for all that happened within the diplomatic corps.
He also spoke about the value of American diplomats, and criticized Romney for his early criticism of the administration over the assault.
"You don't turn national security into a political issue, certainly not right when it's happening," Obama said. "When it comes to national security, I mean what I say."
Romney pointedly applauded Obama for taking responsibility for the rejected security request, and sharply criticized the president for failing to get to discover what happened in Benghazi.
He said the violence in Libya was part of a broader mismanagement of the Middle East and weak presidential leadership that has led to tense relations with Israel, the failure to end Iran's nuclear ambitions, and wider unrest in the Arab world.
"This strategy is unraveling before our eyes," Romney said.
Obama headed into the debate looking to highlight what he has called Romney's changing positions on a variety of economic and social issues, including the question of abortion rights that is important to many female voters.
Romney has said he is against abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk, but would do little to change the law that now makes abortion legal. But his written campaign platform, as well as Ryan's public statements in his debate last week, suggest that a Romney administration would work to make abortion illegal.
"I'd just note that I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not," Romney said. "And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."
He added that Obama was mischaracterizing his position.
The questioners primarily focused on domestic issues, including immigration reform. Lorraine Osorio asked Romney what he would do about immigrants in the country illegally who are living productive lives.
Romney said he would not grant amnesty to immigrants in the country illegally. But he said he would give green cards to immigrants who have skills that will help the United States.
When it was his turn, Obama said he had streamlined the visa process and strengthened the security presence along the Mexican-American border. But he also sought to cast Romney's position of extreme, citing statements he made during the primary season.
"His main strategy during the primary was self-deportation, making it so miserable for folks they will just leave," Obama said, adding that Romney supports the Arizona legislation that allows officials to request papers from those who look like they may be in the country illegally.
Romney responded by saying he supports portions of that law, not all of it.
"I'm not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country," he said.