Obama, Romney spar in feisty second debate
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 14:10
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Unchained from lecterns, they circled, interrupted and shouted over each other. They encroached on each other's space and looked at times as if they might even poke each other in the chest. As lopsided as the first confrontation had been, the second debate between President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday night was a venomous staring contest as they sparred over taxes, foreign policy, gas prices and immigration.
"Production on government land of oil is down 14 percent," Romney said during a back-and-forth over energy policy that captured the dynamic.
Obama rejected the assertion and refused to cede the red-carpeted stage - presenting a far feistier sparring partner than the one Romney faced two weeks earlier.
"Production is up," he said. "Production is down," Romney said. "No, it isn't," Obama said.
The president landed at Hofstra University on Tuesday aboard Marine One. But Romney was the one who arrived with momentum since their first debate two weeks ago in Denver.
Obama's lack of fire in that first confrontation left Democrats disheartened. Romney was forceful, confident and dominating enough to change the dynamic almost overnight.
The president's solid lead in most key battleground states has evaporated, amid a growing perception that Romney now represents the change many Americans seek.
Obama was much more assertive this time, starting with the first question, from college student Jeremy Epstein, who was seeking reassurance about his job prospects.
"The last four years have been very, very hard," Romney said, referring to a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs without providing specifics.
"When you come out in 2014, I presume I'm going to be president. I'm going to make sure you get a job." Obama pounced.
Not only would Romney have let the U.S. auto industry go bankrupt, he asserted, but "Governor 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" - by paying lower tax rates and letting them take tax breaks for sending jobs overseas.
Obama even worked in a reference to Romney's buyout firm, Bain Capital, alluding to investors who pick companies clean, firing workers while pocketing profits, checking off one line of attack after another that his supporters wished he'd unleashed in the first debate.
"That's what's been squeezing middle-class families. We have fought back for four years to get out of that mess," Obama said. When Romney unleashed a damning litany of indicators showing that Obama's economic policies have failed - noting that gasoline prices have doubled since he took office, for instance Obama had a sharp retort at the ready.
Prices were unusually low when he took office, the president said, "because the economy was on the verge of collapse. . . . It's conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices because with his policies, we might be back in that same mess."
Neither Obama nor Romney has shown much knack for the town hall format used at Hofstra, which makes pivoting to a scripted zinger a more delicate matter than questioning by a journalist.
"That's not a natural fit for either candidate," said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor and author of "Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV." Both adapted, shifting easily between expressing empathy for voters' concerns and a fierce pushback against his adversary.
A voter named Mary Follano asked how Romney would cut tax rates for all taxpayers without losing revenue. He has said he would cap deductions, though the biggest are also the most popular - for mortgage interest and contributions to charity.
Obama noted that during the GOP primaries, Romney said he would cut taxes for everyone, not that he would cut tax rates. "I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle-income people," Romney said, assuring Follano that "the top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax the nation collects."
For Obama, one mission Tuesday was to stymie Romney's efforts to recast himself as a pragmatic centrist, after a primary fight in which he'd presented himself as "severely conservative" - a mission he failed to accomplish two weeks ago.
Many Democrats were hoping for at least glimmers of what they saw in last week's running-mate debate in Kentucky, when Vice President Joe Biden blasted away at Romney with every cudgel Obama neglected in Denver: the Republican nominee's derision for the "47 percent" of Americans who mooch off the rest, his tenure at Bain Capital, his proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
On Tuesday night, both contenders spent nearly all of the 90-minute event on their feet, ignoring their stools and the pen and pad nearby, allowing both to project a sense of combativeness and engagement.
For Obama, this was especially helpful; note-taking and looking down left a sour impression in the first debate. Obama was much more assertive this time. After he painted Romney as a hypocrite for complaining about China's aggressive trade policies while holding Chinese companies in his investment portfolio, Romney sought to blunt the damage.
"Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney said. "I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours," Obama shot back.
The Obama team was projecting far more confidence after Tuesday's debate than they had after the first one. "He wanted to come out here with a lot of energy. . . . It was a dominant performance by the president," White House political strategist David Plouffe said. But Romney advisers also were claiming victory.