HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama, needing to erase the memory of his dismal showing in the first presidential debate, came on strong Tuesday, forcefully challenging Republican Mitt Romneys stands on the economy, taxes and energy while charging the Republican is concerned largely with big business and the rich.
Romney countered by attempting to reinforce the confident, determined image he showed during their first matchup by using this debates town hall format to show he can connect with the American people. The Republican challenger also aimed to show that his conservatism has a compassionate hue and to dispel the notion that hes a wealthy, out-of-touch patrician.
In their second and perhaps pivotal debate, Obama and Romney were cordial to each other as they came on stage at Hofstra University, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. But as soon as the debate started they repeatedly began interrupting and correcting each other.
Obama immediately attacked Romney on his economic plan, his solution to gas prices and his failure to support the auto industry bailout. Romney recommended bankruptcy for the automakers in 2008.
What Gov. Romney said just isnt true, Obama said. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without any way to stay open.
Dont believe Romney has a five-point plan to help the economy, Obama said. He has a one-point plan, he said you can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers and still make money . . . thats exactly the philosophy weve seen in place for the last decade.
But Romney fired right back. Time and time again.
"Its not going to be like the last four years, he said. The middle class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce. I know what it takes to bring them back, and Im going to do that."
They also clashed sharply on energy policy, with Romney pointedly questioning Obama on public lands policy. The proof of whether a strategy is working, Romney said, is the price of energy and its higher, he said, than it had been.
The economy was on the verge of collapse, said Obama, and thats why energy prices were lower. And that downturn, he said, resulted from the same kind of policies Romney is promoting. If hes allowed to implement them, Obama said, the country will be back in a mess.
The candidates debated in a town hall format that allowed them to walk around the stage, address the voters directly and stand almost next to each other as they parried back and forth. Questions came from undecided voters from the New York City area selected by the Gallup Organization.
CNNs Candy Crowley, the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate, regularly followed up the participants questions and candidates answers with questions of her own, pressing for more detail.
The stakes for this second meeting were high. Romney is credited with winning the first faceoff Oct. 3, and another stumble by Obama could douse any momentum his campaign spent months to build. The president is still very much in the game, though, as most national and swing state polls routinely show a virtual tie.
But Obama was much feistier from the outset Tuesday night.
Romney argued that the nation needs to be more energy independent, and he explained his support of more aggressive exploitation of domestic oil, gas, coal and other resources, as well as approval of the gas pipeline. "Were going to bring that pipeline in from Canada," Romney said. "How in the world the president said no to the pipeline Ill never know."
Obama supports federal investments in clean energy research, but he backs only limited offshore drilling and has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada for now, though has said he will reconsider.
"Were drilling more on public lands than the previous administration and the previous president was an oil man," Obama said.
The candidates also sparred over taxes. Romney, who has proposed a 20 percent across-the-board income tax rate cut, vowed that higher-income people would pay no less than they do now, while middle-class consumers would get a break.
And I will not I will not under any circumstances, reduce the share thats being paid by the highest income taxpayers. And I will not, under any circumstances, increase taxes on the middle class. The presidents spending; the presidents borrowing will cost this nation to have to raise taxes on the American people. Not just at the high end, Romney insisted.
Obama scoffed. Gov. Romney has a different philosophy, he said.
The president explained his view, with a jab at Romney. So what Ive said is, your first $250,000 worth of income, no change. And that means 98 percent of American families, 97 percent of small businesses; they will not see a tax increase. Im ready to sign that bill right now, Obama said. The only reason its not happening is because Gov. Romneys allies in Congress have held the 98 percent hostage because they want tax breaks for the top 2 percent.
Republicans have consistently blocked Democratic efforts to impose higher taxes on the wealthy.
Congress bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has found that even if most popular deductions were eliminated, such changes would only fund a 4 percent income tax cut.
Romney was asked how he was different from former President George W. Bush. Both are Republicans, and Bush left office in 2009 with a dismal approval rating in the midst of a deep recession.
"President Bush and I are different people and these are different times, he said.
Romney listed several the ways the two differ most importantly, his policies on the economy, his encouragement of small businesses, his plan to increase trade and balance the budget.
Obama disputed Romney, saying Romney and Bush are similar on the economy, but that Romney has gone to a more "extreme place" on non-financial issues, including immigration and Planned Parenthood funding.
The Obama campaign has been making an effort to paint Romney as someone who constantly shifts his positions. In recent days, Romney has softened his rhetoric on several issues after spending much of the year trying to paint himself as severely conservative in an effort to win his partys nomination.
He continues to back repeal of the 2010 federal health care law, but he has recently expressed eagerness to work with Democrats.
He told the Des Moines Register last week, Theres no legislation with regards to abortion that Im familiar with that would become part of my agenda, though he remains adamantly anti-abortion in most cases.
Stephanie Cutter, Obamas deputy campaign manager, wrote to supporters Tuesday: This is a deliberate attempt to hide and even misrepresent the real positions hes held loudly and unabashedly during this entire race a last-minute effort to make the sale just like he did in the boardroom to close a deal.
Romney could get a boost Tuesday from an endorsement from Ross Perot. The Texas businessman won 19 percent of the 1992 popular vote running as an independent, the best showing for someone unaffiliated with a major party in 80 years.
The Obama campaign got its own good news Tuesday, when the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application from Ohio that would have allowed the state to stop early voting the weekend before the election. A lower court ruling found the state had to treat all voters the same and not give special voting privileges to military members as it wanted.
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