President Barack Obama scrapped with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a rough-and-tumble debate Tuesday, with the candidates arguing face-to-face, interrupting, accusing each other of lying and ignoring the moderator's attempts to move the discussion to new topics.
Throughout the 100-minute debate, the president, visibly transformed since his passive performance earlier this month, tried to portray his challenger as a wealthy, far-right candidate who was masking himself as a moderate in the race's final weeks. Obama suggested that Romney would be a more conservative president than George W. Bush.
Romney tried to keep the focus on the weak economy, repeatedly laying the blame at the president's feet. Romney predicted that if Obama was re-elected, the $16 trillion national debt would continue ballooning and put the country "on a road to Greece."
"If you re-elect President Obama, you know what you’re going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years,” Romney said.
Tuesday's debate was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., in a town-hall format, in which "uncommitted" voters chosen by the Gallup polling firm asked questions that were pre-screened by moderator Candy Crowley of CNN. The format was designed to have the candidates engage voters on a personal level. But time after time, Romney and Obama turned to face one another and, digressing from an audience member's question, tussled.
They even bickered with Crowley, frequently talking over her as she attempted to maintain control.
In one of the most contentious exchanges, during an argument over energy production, Romney cut off Obama and accused him of reducing permits and licenses to drill for oil on federal lands by half over the past four years.
"Not true, Governor Romney," Obama said.
Romney persisted: "So how much did you cut?"
"Not true," Obama said.
The two men drew closer to each other, until they were just a couple feet apart, right in front of the studio audience, bickering.
Romney kept at it. "How much did you cut them by, then?"
"Governor," Obama said, "we have actually produced more oil…"
"No, no," Romney interrupted. "How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?"
Eventually, Obama said that his administration had revoked leases from oil companies who weren't using them.
Romney didn't let up, asserting that oil production was down, which Obama said wasn't true.
The discussion frequently turned back to the economy. In response to a question about unemployment, Romney said there were 23 million people looking for work, some of them "for a long, long, long time."
"The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven't put Americans back to work," Romney said.
Romney outlined his "five-point plan" to create millions of new jobs, which Obama ridiculed.
"Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan," the president said. "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."
The debate again turned tumultuous in an argument about Obama's response to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. The administration has been criticized for at first describing the attack as having been prompted by an anti-Islam video. Obama has since acknowledged that it was a planned assault by Islamist militants.
Romney said the response was misleading, but went on to accuse Obama of returning to the campaign trail instead of trying to figure out the facts. Obama called that assertion "offensive."
The president recalled standing in the the White House's Rose Garden the day after the killings and calling it "an act of terror."
Romney, apparently believing he had caught the president in a lie, said: "I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
"Get the transcript," Obama replied.
Crowley interjected: "He did in fact, sir. So let me... let me call it an act of terror..."
"Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" Obama said.
"He did call it an act of terror," Crowley clarified.
That exchange, while not Romney's finest of the night, showed that he was determined not to let up on the pressure he applied in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, which he was widely seen as having won.
He set that tone early on, when Obama accused Romney of wanting to let the auto industry go bankrupt instead of bailing it out. Romney shot back.
"He keeps saying, 'You want to take Detroit bankrupt.' Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt," Romney said, turning from the audience and staring Obama down. "You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did."
But Obama, who seemed almost apathetic during that first debate, matched Romney's aggression, and then some.
One of Obama's most frequent targets was Romney's plan for an across-the-board 20-percent reduction in income tax rates. Romney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, has said he would pay for the reduction by closing loopholes and eliminating many deductions. Obama accused Romney of failing to offer more details, and predicted that Romney's plan would "blow up the deficit."
"Now, Governor Romney was a very successful investor," Obama said. "If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, 'Here, I want to spend $7 or $8 trillion, and then we're going to pay for it, but we can't tell you until maybe after the election how we're going to do it,' you wouldn't take such a sketchy deal, and neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn't add up."
Romney responded, "Well, of course they add up. I was someone who ran businesses for 25 years and balanced the budget. I ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. I ran the state of Massachusetts as a governor, to the extent any governor does, and balanced the budget all four years. When we're talking about math that doesn't add up, how about $4 trillion of deficits over the last four years, $5 trillion? That's math that doesn't add up. We have a president talking about someone's plan in a way that's completely foreign to what my real plan is."
During the first presidential debate, Obama avoided using zingers as his campaign had predicted. That wasn’t the case on Tuesday night.
After being attacked for overseas investments, Romney fired back by challenging the president to inspect his own portfolio. He asked whether Obama had looked at his pension lately.
"I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take as long," Obama fired back.
Also in contrast to the first debate, Obama brought up Romney’s videotaped comments that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government. He did so in answering the final question of the night, moments after Romney said he cared "about 100 percent of the American people."
Obama said that he believed Romney was a "good man" who loved his family and faith.
"But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims or refused personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about," he said before referencing Americans on Social Security, students and veterans.
Obama said he wanted to "fight for them — that's what I've been doing for the last four years."
The third and final presidential debate, to focus on foreign policy, will be held Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.