HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — A far more aggressive President Obama showed up for his second debate with Mitt Romney on Tuesday, and at moments their town-hall-style engagement felt more like a shouting match than a presidential debate.
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.
Romney, having rallied his supporters with his performance in Denver, was seeking to keep that momentum going. Neither one held back.
The debate, which was framed by questions from the audience, ranged into topics that had not been broached in any depth at the earlier one — including immigration, women’s issues, gun control and foreign policy.
In one of the sharpest exchanges of the night, Obama and Romney clashed over whether the White House misled Americans about the nature of the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
The debate’s first questioner, a college student who will graduate soon, asked Romney how he would ensure that he could get a job and pay off student loans. “We have to make it easier for kids to afford college and, once they graduate from college, to get a job,” Romney said, coming down off his stool in the town-hall setting of the debate. “What’s happened over the last four years has been very, very hard for America’s young people.” But Obama, while agreeing that improving higher education is essential for the nation’s economic future, noted pointedly that he wants to create manufacturing jobs like those in the auto industry that he helped preserve with a federal bailout that Romney opposed.
The tone was established early in the debate, when a woman in the audience asked Romney to specify the tax deductions he would eliminate to pay for the tax rate reductions he has promised. As he has in the past, Romney raised the possibility of an overall cap: “I’ll pick a number — $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use.”
Obama seized on Romney’s lack of specificity as a “sketchy deal” and contended it was based on “math that doesn’t add up.” He also noted that Romney, who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, pays a lower tax rate than many middle-income people.
“Well, of course they add up,” Romney retorted, citing his successful business career and the budgets he balanced as Massachusetts governor. “When we’re talking about math that doesn’t add up, how about $4 trillion of deficits over the last four years, $5 trillion? That’s math that doesn’t add up.”
Obama made other references to Romney’s wealth. In one exchange, Romney noted that the president, too, had investments in Chinese companies.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney said.
“I don’t look at my pension,” Obama responded. “It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long. I don’t check it that often.”
Later, Obama raised Romney’s remarks to wealthy donors at a private fundraiser disparaging “the 47 percent” of Americans who do not pay income taxes. It was a line of attack that he didn’t make in the previous debate, which mystified many of his allies.
“I believe Governor Romney is a good man — loves his family, cares about his faith,” Obama said. “But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.”
Obama, mentioning people on Social Security, soldiers and veterans, as well as students, said: “I want to fight for them. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”
Romney said the president and his campaign were trying to characterize him “as someone who’s very different than who I am.”
“I care about 100 percent of the American people,” Romney said. “I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again.”
The former Massachusetts governor seemed most confident when he talked about Obama’s stewardship of the nation’s beleaguered economy.