HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — In a critical debate three weeks before Election Day, President Obama and Mitt Romney turned a Town Hall conversation with several dozen voters into a combative duel on Tuesday, delivering punches and counterpunches on the economy, foreign policy, and social issues.
Unlike the previous debate in Denver, in which Obama was widely described as disengaged and listless, their second face-to-face encounter was animated and pointed. The candidates frequently spoke over each other, pointed at each other, and fought for time with moderator Candy Crowley of CNN.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment,” Romney said sharply at one point, as Obama left his stool to rebut the former Massachusetts governor.
Both men waded briskly into the arguments that separate them, sometimes standing nearly toe to toe as they argued. And for the first time in the two debates, they sparred over the Obama administration’s record in the Middle East.
In one poignant exchange, Obama looked sternly at Romney after the challenger inferred that the president had put his campaign work ahead of the investigation into the attack in Libya that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
“The suggestion that anybody in my team — whether the secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team — would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said.
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
The candidates also spoke directly to women voters. Obama once held a dominant lead in this key bloc, but that has softened.
In response to a question about equal pay for women in the workplace, both candidates spoke about personal experiences. Obama cited the struggles of his mother and grandmother — and the hopes he has for his two daughters — while Romney talked about trying to find more women to work in his gubernatorial Cabinet, and offering flexible work hours once they were hired.
But they both used the question to spar over access to contraceptives, and support for Planned Parenthood.
“When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings,” Obama said. “That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.”
Romney later noted, “I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not.”
He added, “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.”
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University had been designed as a “town hall” format in which the candidates fielded questions selected in advance from a pool of uncommitted voters. Although the debate rules prohibited Crowley from asking follow-up questions, she often pressed each man for specific answers if they did not answer the voters directly.
Instead of inhibiting direct attacks on each other, as many observers believed would happen, the format allowed Obama and Romney to include jabs on nearly every question.
The candidates also battled over immigration, with Romney charging that Obama has failed to deliver comprehensive reform, and the president countering that his opponent would favor the kind of tough crackdown initiated in Arizona against illegal immigrants.
Much of the debate focused on the economy, with Obama criticizing Romney’s videotaped dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal taxes.
Romney said the weak economy would continue to founder under the president’s guidance, and Obama reiterated his argument that the Republican would be unduly influenced by the wealthy and corporations at the expense of the middle class.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan,” the president said, referring to his opponent’s campaign recipe for economic growth. “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.”
Following widespread criticism from Democrats since the last debate, Obama appeared much more confident and engaged. “Very little of what Governor Romney has said is true,” the president said at one point.
He also criticized Romney for his videotaped dismissal of 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal taxes — an issue he did not raise in the first debate in Denver.
“I believe Governor Romney’s a good man — loves his family, cares about his faith,” Obama said in his closing statement. “But I also believe that when he said, behind closed doors, that 47 percent of the country consider themselves victims — who refuse personal responsibility?
“Think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who worked all their lives; veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country; students, who are out there hopefully trying to advance.”
Romney appeared to try to preempt that criticism in his own final statement.
“The president’s campaign has tried to characterize me as someone who’s very different from who I am,” Romney said. “I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids.”
Obama also criticized Romney for not offering more specifics on what changes he wants to make to reduce the size of government. “We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating Planned Parenthood,” Obama said.
Saying that Romney, as a businessman, would not invest in something that had so few details, Obama said, “You wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people.”
Romney said that Obama was characterizing his proposals in a way that was “completely foreign.”
He did not say which tax deductions he would eliminate. But, as he has before, Romney outlined a proposal that would give certain taxpayers a defined amount of total deductions they could take on their taxes.
“The middle- income families in America have been crushed over the last four years,” Romney said, before pledging, “I will not under any circumstances increase taxes on the middle class.”
“I know what it takes to balance budgets,” Romney added. “I’ve done it my entire life.”
In a light moment, Obama took aim at Romney’s immense personal fortune, estimated to be at least $250 million.
Obama had criticized Romney for maintaining a blind trust with investments in questionable China businesses, and Romney countered, asking Obama three times whether he had looked at his own pensions for similar investmens.
“You know,” Obama said, “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.”
Romney also sought to make a direct appeal at voters who may have grown tired of the struggling economy.
“For me, I look at what’s happened over the last four years and say, this has been a disappointment. We don’t have to settle for this,” Romney said. “We don’t have to live like this. We can get this economy going again.”
The debate was viewed as a critical test for Obama, whose poor performance in the Denver debate breathed new life into Romney’s campaign, which gained a swagger as polls narrowed in many battleground states.Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.