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.