In a town hall-style debate that saw the candidates constantly challenge each other on issues ranging from the economy to the handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney got up close and personal at times Tuesday night.
The president, who was criticized for being too passive during the contenders' first debate two weeks ago in Denver, was much more aggressive about challenging claims made by Romney. He interrupted the former Massachusetts governor when the challenger said things the president claimed were false, and he exhibited a flash of anger about things Romney said regarding the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.
"The suggestion that anybody on my team ... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," a grim-faced Obama told Romney. "That's not what we do. ... That's not what I do as president."
Romney, meanwhile, did not shy away from making his case that the president has failed to live up to the promises he made four years ago and that the country is no better off — and in some ways is worse off — since Obama moved into the Oval Office.
"If you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get," Romney told one questioner, "a repeat of the last four years. ... This is a president who's not been able to do what he said he would do."
At times the two came close enough to touch each other — though they did not — as they invaded each other's personal space and fired off attack lines.
We live blogged as they took questions from audience members . The 82 people selected to be part of the group that got to ask questions have said they aren't committed to either candidate. CNN's Candy Crowley was the moderator.
The last question to each man aims to get him to talk about himself and to discuss what people don't know about him.
Romney says the Obama campaign has spent considerable time attacking him and that voters should know, "I care about 100 percent of the American people." And he ends this last response by recapping some of the failures of the Obama administration, including "47 million people on food stamps ... and 50 percent of kids coming out of college not being able to find work."
Obama talks as much about Romney as about himself. "When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country consider themselves victims ... think about who he's talking about," Obama says, including "folks on Social Security ... veterans ... students."
"I want to fight for them," Obama says of those people.
Romney criticizes Obama for the president's handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and in particular for going to political fundraisers in the days immediately after. He also questions why the administration at first tried to blame the attack on protests over an anti-Muslim video, when it had information indicating it was a planned assault by terrorists.
Obama shows his first flash of anger. "The suggestion that anybody on my team ... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," he says. "That's not what we do. ... That's not what I do as president."
Romney says that it took the president 14 days to come forward and "call it an act of terror."
Obama is quick to respond, saying he called it an act of terror the day after the attack — during a statement he made in the Rose Garden. Romney insists that didn't happen. And then Crowley gets some applause from the onlookers (not the town hall participants) when she corrects Romney. "He did call it an act of terror," she tells the GOP nominee, who appears surprised.
A check of the transcript shows that during his five-minute statement, Obama said:
"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."
At the end of a discussion on immigration policy, Romney pivots to change the subject to something Obama said earlier — that Romney has invested in companies that shift jobs to China. It was done by his blind trust, Romney says, and he asks Obama whether he's looked at his own pension fund because it too has invested in China. No, Obama says as the two men come close again, because "it's not as big as yours."
Obama is asked what he's done to earn anyone's vote in 2012.
The president runs through some things, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, the creation of 5 million private jobs in the past 30 months, and legislation aimed at cracking down on Wall Street's excesses.
"Does that mean you're not struggling? Absolutely not," Obama says. But, the commitments he hasn't been able to keep, says the president, are "not for lack of trying" and he will work on them in a second term.
Then Obama pivots to talk about the promises he says Romney would keep. When Republicans pledged to not raise taxes on the rich, Romney said "me too," Obama says. On cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, Romney said "me too." And on repealing Obamacare, Romney said "me too."
"I think you know better," Romney tells the questioner. "If you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get ... a repeat of the last four years. ... This is a president who's not been able to do what he said he would do."
Audience member Susan says she is an undecided voter because she's been disappointed in the lack of progress in the past four years. But she also attributes "much of the lack of progress to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration."
How is Romney different from Bush?
Romney says, "I'll crack down on China ... President Bush didn't. ... I'm also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America." And he'll "get us to a balanced budget."
To which Obama responds that Romney's economic policies would be little different from Bush's.
Obama walks toward Romney and says that the governor wants $5 trillion in tax cuts, $2 trillion in additional defense spending that the Pentagon isn't asking for, and to extend the Bush-era tax cuts at a cost of $1 trillion. But Romney "can't tell you" how he'll pay for all that, Obama says to the audience. Then, to Romney, he says that in the business world "you wouldn't have taken such a sketchy deal."
Which leads to Romney talking about the $4 trillion in deficits accumulated while Obama has been president. Obama's policies, Romney says, "puts us on the road to Greece."
"Sketchy deal" and "road to Greece": Two ALERTs ("a line everybody [will] remember tomorrow")?
After the first debate, the president was criticized for often looking down — and at times not even looking that interested — as Romney spoke. Tonight, he's keeping his head up and his eyes on his opponent when the Republican nominee speaks. It will be interesting to watch what's said in the post-debate analyses about the president's demeanor.
There's much more heat in tonight's debate than in the first Obama-Romney encounter, in large part because the two men are walking toward each other as they trade verbal jabs. They're getting inside each other's personal space.
Moments ago, Romney insisted that oil and natural gas drilling on public lands "is down."
That's "just not true," said Obama, as the two men came within just a few feet of each other.
"It's absolutely true," Romney responded.
And as Romney continued to speak, Obama tried to interrupt. "You'll get your chance in a moment," Romney said to the president. "That wasn't a question, that was a statement."
"You'll get your chance in a moment" could be tonight's first ALERT ("a line everybody [will] remember tomorrow").
The first question comes from Jeremy, a 20-year-old college student who says all he hears is that he has little chance of finding a job when he graduates.
Romney walks straight toward the young man and says, "Your question is one being asked by college kids all over this country." He assures Jeremy that "I know how to create jobs" and uses his response to talk about how "the middle class has been crushed for the past four years" — during Obama's term in office.
The president walks over to Jeremy and tells him "your future is bright." Then he pivots to contrast "the 5 million jobs we've created in the past 30 months in the private sector alone" to what he says was Romney's willingness to "let Detroit go bankrupt."
Which gets Romney to respond that "my plan was to have the company go through bankruptcy ... and come out stronger."
"You took Detroit bankrupt," Romney tells Obama.
Obama then says that "what Gov. Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without providing any way to stay open."
Romney's philosophy, says Obama, is to cut taxes for the wealthy and let companies shift jobs overseas. "We have fought back for four years to get out of that [kind of] mess," the president continues. "The last thing we need to do" is go back to those policies.
Crowley just gave the 80 members of the town hall audience their last pep talk — and advised the several hundred others in the hall who are watching from "the cheap seats" to make sure their cellphones are turned off. So the debate is about to get going.
NPR's Don Gonyea tweets from Hofstra that because of the town hall format, it may be "harder to dodge" a question since it's being asked "by a real voter."
Just how tight is the race right now? Real Clear Politics collects poll results and comes up with an RCP Average. It is now showing Romney at 47.4 percent; Obama at 47 percent. Of course, those polls are asking which candidate you would vote for "if the election was held today."
There are three weeks to go to Election Day.
The campaigns have told news outlets to expect that the debate, scheduled to last 90 minutes, might run about 10 minutes long, C-SPAN reports.
"Something that reveals new ground," she says in an interview C-SPAN just broadcast (and streamed here).
As for what's at stake, NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving says that for the president this debate is his "best opportunity ... to make up for — or bounce back from — his performance in the first debate on Oct. 3, which cost him the [campaign] momentum."
For Romney, Ron says, "it's more about the relationship he has with these questioners. ... He's going to have to show the kind of empathy and human warmth that people look for in a president."
According to The Associated Press, the Gallup polling organization helped identify and pick the 82 "uncommitted voters" who will be onstage with the candidates. Crowley, AP says, has been working with the group to select "as broad a range of questions as possible."
NPR's Don Gonyea says it is hoped about 20 people will be able to pose their questions. If Crowley "is inclined to follow up on any of those questions," he says, "she certainly can be expected to do so. That's something the campaigns had pushed back against." But Crowley and the Debate Commission insisted that she has the right to interject if necessary to help guide the discussion.
"We can assume the bulk of the questions will be about domestic policy and the economy," Don tells our Newscast Desk.
There will be no formal opening or closing statements. Romney gets the first question. Obama gets the last word. They're supposed to keep their responses to 2 minutes or less.
The first Obama-Romney debate, on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, shook up the campaign. Romney had what polls show was a strong performance, while Obama was judged to have "lost" the faceoff. Since then, Vice President Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan had their one and only debate. Biden was aggressive. Ryan, polls indicate, held his own.
The third and final presidential debate is set for next Monday night (Oct. 22) at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.