HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. President Barack Obama, facing a newly invigorated challenge from Mitt Romney, portrayed his rival as a former corporate raider who would favor the wealthy over the middle class and a political vacillator during their second debate Tuesday night, showing a fighting spirit he did not bring to their first meeting two weeks ago.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan,” Obama told the audience in one of his first answers. “He has a one-point plan: That plan is that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Following a shaky debate performance two weeks ago that helped Romney to gain a new edge in this pivotal last month of the race, Obama had promised to be more aggressive Tuesday, and from his very first question he took a shot at Romney, over his opposition to the Detroit automobile bailout.
Romney, who was seeking to use his momentum to woo those who had supported Obama four years ago, readily engaged, at one point stepping into Obama’s space while pushing him to answer his charge that oil production had dropped during his tenure.
Reflecting the charged, clenched and biting nature of the debate from its start, Romney told the president tartly, “This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal.”
Romney kept bringing the discussion back to the president’s record, saying that the nation should not “have to settle” for continued unemployment around 8 percent.
“We don’t have to live like this,” Romney said. “We can get this economy going again.”
During the debate, the two men repeatedly rose from their stools, addressing one another directly, as they moved around the stage. The men circled one another — closer and closer — as their voices grew sharper and louder in combative verbal exchanges. They talked over each other as they discussed issues like domestic energy production, jobs and taxes.
“What you’re saying is just not true,” Obama said.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment; I’m still speaking,” Romney said at one point, growing testy as the president tried to interject, drawing a gasp from the audience. “That wasn’t a question; that’s a statement.”
The posture of the candidates reflected the unpredictable new tenor in the race. They each showed little restraint in attacking each other intensely, with the audience taking a back seat to the two candidates. And they made frequent appeals that seemed directed at female voters, as they highlighted pocketbook issues like fair wages.
The moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, defied the rules of the presidential debate commission — negotiated by the two campaigns — pressing the candidates for a follow-up after the very first question. Crowley had made it clear that she would do that and had not signed anything agreeing to those conditions, but she also stood to the side and let the two men go after each other in the opening period of the debate.