The two men challenged each other on the facts, talked over each other and stalked each other across the stage.
Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN faced a difficult task all night in trying to keep to the intended format as both candidates insisted on answering nearly every charge from his opponent, regardless of the time limits.
The president, looking for an opportunity to recharge his campaign after a lackluster performance at their first debate two weeks earlier, contended that the Republican nominee’s policies and values are extreme and out of touch with the concerns of the middle class.
Obama used many of his questions as pivot points to paint Romney as extreme on a wide range of social issues — particularly ones that appeal to the female vote, which is crucial to the president’s prospects and which some polls suggest has begun to slip away from him.
When asked about the equality of women’s pay, Obama raised Romney’s opposition to abortion rights and his pledge to take federal funds from Planned Parenthood. Obama said Romney “feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health-care choices that women are making.”
On Libya, the president said he is “ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there” but bristled at the suggestion from Romney that he had withheld critical facts about the incident.
“The suggestion that anyone on my team ... would play politics or mislead is offensive,” said Obama, his voice rising. He noted that he addressed the American people from the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack and called it “an act of terror, and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”
Sensing an opportunity, Romney 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.”
Obama’s retort: “Get the transcript.”
Crowley interjected that Obama did, in fact, call it an act of terror, although it did take days for the administration to concede that the terrorist act was unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.
The Post’s Nia Malika Henderson wrote as the debate started that Obama supporters were getting what they had wanted from the first debate:
Obama supporters wanted an aggressive Obama, and an aggressive Obama is what they got. Twenty minutes into the debate and there has been forceful rebuttals and vigorous interrupting on both sides. Obama has accused Mitt Romney of saying something untrue at least three times. Both candidates have been talking over each other and talking over the moderator, Candy Crowley, and there hasn’t been much interaction with the “regular” voters in the audience.
At one point, Romney aggressively approached Obama. … And there was an audible gasp from the audience when Romney cut off Obama, saying “you’ll get your chance in a moment.”
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote that the newfound testiness between the two candidates is likely to stay until the bitter end of the election:
Unlike the exchange in Denver, Tuesday’s debate at Hofstra University was not a mismatch between an aggressive and focused Romney and a lackluster and unfocused Obama. Instead, it was marked by tough and testy exchanges between two candidates who have opposing policies and who knew they had much to lose if they didn’t do well.
Unlike in the first debate, Romney was on the defensive as much as or more than he was on the offensive. It was clear from the opening minutes Tuesday that Democrats, who were deeply disappointed by Obama’s performance in Denver, were elated by the president they saw on stage. He passed up no opportunity to attack his rival and to challenge his record, just as Romney had done last time.
The candidates did not come to play nice. They squabbled over facts. They interrupted each other. They circled each other. They invaded each other’s space. If town-hall-style debates are supposed to be forums in which the candidates focus on the voters onstage, this was one in which they often seemed to ignore their questioners so they could slug it out one on one.
The Fix listed Obama as one of the “winners” of the night, due to hitting the mark at a few key moments:
President Obama: It was a near-certainty that the incumbent would improve on his mystifying bad first debate performance. And, he did. But he also did more than that. After coming out a little too hot — Obama seemed to be on the wrong side of the angry/passionate divide in the first 15 minutes — he moderated his tone to the sober/serious yet forceful persona that he needed in this debate. Debates are about moments — the moments that get replayed again and again in the after-action analysis — and President Obama had three: 1) his line about how his pension wasn’t as big as Romney’s 2) winning, against all odds, the scrap about the Benghazi attack (with an assist from moderator Candy Crowley) and 3) his strong close in which he used Romney’s “47 percent” comments as a cudgel to beat up his rival. Obama’s performance wasn’t flawless and he didn’t score a clean win as Romney did in the first debate. But, he was the better performer this time around.
Rosalind Helderman reported from Cleveland on how Obama supporters there reacted to the debate:
President Obama needed to sway undecided voters at Tuesday night’s debate. But a perhaps even more urgent task was to reenergize his own supporters, dispirited by his lackluster performance in his first meeting with Mitt Romney.
And judging by the reaction of a handful of Obama supporters who watched the debate at P.J. McIntyre’s, an Irish bar in Kamm’s Corner, a working-class neighborhood just outside this important swing state city, he may have succeeded.
John Hall, 30, a waiter who had been glancing up at the debate on a giant screen hung above a fireplace as he bustled around the bar, began lingering longer and longer.
Afterward, Hall said he believed Obama had clearly gotten the better of Romney.
“He was more specific. And I think it’s true what he said, he’s stopped the bleeding in the economy,” said Hall, who will vote for Obama. “It’s still bad. But he stopped the bleeding.”
Two out-of-state visitors in the bar were watching closely to see if Obama would be more assertive.
“This is where he needs to be aggressive,” Curtis Wilgosh said as Obama opened his very first answer, pivoting from a question about helping college graduates find jobs to his support for the auto bailout.
“He’s being aggressive this time,” responded his viewing partner, Chakra Dabbara, 54, from New Jersey.
“Yeah, this is good,” said Wilgosh, 38, a management consultant from Madison, Wis.