Face to face: Obama, Romney in crackling debate

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) – An aggressive
President Barack Obama accused challenger Mitt Romney of peddling a
“sketchy deal” to fix the U.S. economy and playing politics with the
deadly terrorist attack in Libya in a Tuesday night debate crackling
with energy and emotion just three weeks before the election.

Romney pushed back hard, saying the middle
class “has been crushed over the last four years” under Obama's
leadership and that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find
work. He contended the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was part of
an unraveling of the administration's foreign policy.

The president was feistier from the outset
than he had been in their initial encounter two weeks ago, when he
turned in a listless performance that sent shudders through his
supporters and helped fuel a rise by Romney in opinion polls nationally
and in some battleground states.

When Romney said Tuesday night that he had a
five-point plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama said, “Gov. Romney says
he's got a five-point plan. Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan.
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.”

Obama and Romney disagreed, forcefully and
repeatedly – about taxes, the bailout of the auto industry, measures to
reduce the deficit, energy, pay equity for women and health care as well
as foreign policy across 90 minutes of a town-hall style debate.

Immigration prompted yet another clash,
Romney saying Obama had failed to pursue the comprehensive legislation
he promised at the dawn of his administration, and the president saying
Republican obstinacy made a deal impossible.

Romney gave as good as he got.

“You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm
still speaking,” the former Massachusetts governor said at one point
while Obama was mid-sentence, drawing a gasp from the audience. He said
the president's policies had failed to jumpstart the economy and had
cramped energy production.

The open-stage format left the two men free
to stroll freely across a red-carpeted stage, and they did. Their
clashes crackled with energy and tension, and the crowd watched raptly
as the two sparred while struggling to appear calm and affable before a
national television audience.

While most of the debate was focused on
policy differences, there was one more-personal moment, when Obama said
Romney had investments in China.

“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney interrupted.

“You know, I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours,” shot back Obama to his wealthier rival.

Obama noted Romney's business background to
rebut his opponent's plans to fix the economy and prevent federal
deficits from climbing ever higher.

“Now, Gov. Romney was a very successful
investor. 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.”

Countered Romney, a few minutes later, “It does add up.”

Under the format agreed to in advance,
members of an audience of 82 uncommitted voters posed questions to the
president and his challenger.

Nearly all of them concerned domestic policy
until one raised the subject of the recent death of the U.S. ambassador
to Libya in a terrorist attack at an American post in Benghazi. Romney
said it took Obama a long time to admit the episode had been a terrorist
attack, but Obama said he had said so the day after in an appearance in
the Rose Garden outside the White House.

When moderator Candy Crowley of CNN said the president had in fact done so, Obama, prompted, “Say that a little louder, Candy.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken
responsibility for the death of Ambassador L. Christopher Stevens and
three other Americans, but Obama said bluntly, “I'm the president, and
I'm always responsible.”

Romney said it was “troubling” that Obama
continued with a campaign event in Las Vegas on the day after the attack
in Libya, an event the Republican said had “symbolic significance and
perhaps even material significance.”

Obama seemed to bristle. He said it was
offensive for anyone to allege that he or anyone in his administration
had used the incident for political purposes. “That's not what I do.”

According to the transcript, Obama said on
Sept. 12, “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.”

One intense exchange focused on competing
claims about whether energy production is increasing or slowing. Obama
accused Romney of misrepresenting what has happened – a theme he
returned to time and again. Romney strode across the stage to confront
Obama face to face, just feet from the audience.

Both men pledged a better economic future to a
young man who asked the first question, a member of a pre-selected
audience of 82 uncommitted voters.

Then the president's determination to show a more aggressive side became evident.

“That's been his philosophy in the private
sector,” Obama said of his rival. “That's been his philosophy as
governor. That's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate. You
can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a
lot less.”

“You can ship jobs overseas and get tax
breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the
workers, strip away their pensions and you still make money. That's
exactly the philosophy that we've seen in place for the last decade,”
the president said in a scorching summation.

Unable to respond at length because of the debate's rules, Romney said the accusations were “way off the mark.”

But moments later, he reminded the national
television audience of the nation's painfully slow recovery from the
worst recession in decades.

There are “23 million people struggling to
find a job. … The president's policies have been exercised over the
last four years and they haven't put America back to work,” he said. “We
have fewer people working today than when he took office.”

Economic growth has been slow throughout
Obama's term in office, and unemployment only recently dipped below 8
percent for the first time since he moved into the White House. Romney
noted that if out-of-work Americans who no longer look for jobs were
counted, the unemployment rate would be 10.7 percent.

Both men had rehearsed extensively for the encounter, a turnabout for Obama.

“I had a bad night,” the president conceded,
days after he and Romney shared a stage for the first time, in Denver.
His aides made it known he didn't intend to be as deferential to his
challenger this time, and the presidential party decamped for a resort
in Williamsburg, Va., for rehearsals that consumed the better part of
three days.

Romney rehearsed in Massachusetts and again after arriving on Long Island on debate day, with less to make up for.

Asked Tuesday night by one member of the
audience how he would differ from former President George W. Bush, the
last Republican to hold the office, Romney said, “We are different
people and these are different times.”

He said he would attempt to balance the
budget, something Bush was unsuccessful in doing, get tougher on China
and work more aggressively to expand trade.

Obama jumped in with his own predictions –
not nearly as favorable to the man a few feet away on stage. He said the
former president didn't attempt to cut off federal funding for Planned
Parenthood or turn Medicare into a voucher system.

Though the questions were from undecided
voters inside the hall – in a deeply Democratic state – the audience
that mattered most watched on television and was counted in the tens of
millions. Crucially important: viewers in the nine battlegrounds where
the race is likely to be settled.

The final debate, next Monday in Florida, will be devoted to foreign policy.

Opinion polls made the race a close one, with
Obama leading in some national surveys and Romney in others. Despite
the Republican's clear gains in surveys in recent days, the president
led in several polls of Wisconsin and Ohio, two key Midwestern
battlegrounds where Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are campaigning
heavily.

Barring a last-minute shift in the campaign,
Obama is on course to win states and the District of Columbia that
account for 237 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The same
is true for Romney in states with 191 electoral votes.

The remaining 110 electoral votes are divided
among the hotly contested battleground states of Florida (29), North
Carolina (15), Virginia (13) New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Colorado (9),
Nevada (6), Ohio (18) and Wisconsin (10).

Obama has campaigned in the past several days
by accusing Romney of running away from some of the conservative
positions he took for tax cuts and against abortion earlier in the year
when he was trying to win the Republican nomination.

“Maybe you're wondering what to believe about
Mitt Romney,” says one ad, designed to remind voters of the
Republican's strong opposition to abortion except in cases of rape,
incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.

Romney countered by stressing both in person
and through his television advertising the slow pace of the economic
recovery, which has left growth sluggish and unemployment high
throughout Obama's term. Joblessness recently declined to 7.8 percent,
dropping below 8 percent for the first time since the president took
office.

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace in New
York, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Matthew Lee in Lima, Peru,
contributed to this story. Espo reported from Washington.

Copyright 2012 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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