President Barack Obama barely looked like he cared about winning another term when he listlessly debated Mitt Romney two weeks ago. But Tuesday, his back against the wall, Obama hit the stage ready to fight.
"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. That's been his philosophy in the private sector, that's been his philosophy as governor, that's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate," Obama said, letting barely three minutes go by before bringing up Romney's background as a leveraged buyout executive and his opposition to the auto industry rescue plan.
"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," Obama said.
It was not the same Obama this time, not the detached politician constantly looking down at his notes. Unfortunately for the president, it was the same strong Romney, albeit with a harder edge.
"You'll get your chance in a moment, I'm still speaking," Romney sharply told Obama at one point.
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., marked what likely was the single-most important event in the campaign's final month for Obama. His advantage in the race had evaporated after his weak first debate, and Tuesday night offered his best opportunity to staunch the damage.
The town hall-style debate displayed clearly that these are two candidates who dislike each other intensely. Early on, they almost literally went toe-to-toe. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, despite both campaigns hoping she would stay in the background, proved to be a formidable moderator in keeping both men in check as they demanded more time to talk.
This was no one-sided debate, though the president set the tone more than Romney did.
The former Massachusetts governor commanded the first debate, and pushed back hard against a more assertive Obama this time.
"The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked. He's great as a — as a — as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision," Romney said. "That's wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn't been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need. Median income is down $4,300 a family and 23 million Americans out of work. That's what this election is about. … The middle-income families in America have been crushed over the last four years."
At one point, Obama and Romney nearly went face to face during a hostile exchange over gas prices. And after Obama alluded to Romney investments in China, the former Massachusetts governor shot back.
"Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney asked.
"I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long,'' Obama responded.
Romney also pushed back on the suggestion his tax plans are skewed to the wealthy.
"I want to simplify the tax code, and I want to get middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes. And the reason I want middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes is because middle-income taxpayers have been buried over the past four years," Romney said.
Obama responded by invoking former President Bill Clinton, noting that he was merely suggesting tax rates on the wealthy return to the Clinton-era rate when the economy thrived and the deficit disappeared.
"If we're serious about reducing the deficit, if this is genuinely a moral obligation to the next generation, then in addition to some tough spending cuts, we've also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more," Obama said. "So what I've said is, your first $250,000 worth of income, no change. And that means 98 percent of American families, 97 percent of small businesses, they will not see a tax increase. I'm ready to sign that bill right now. The only reason it's not happening is because Gov. Romney's allies in Congress have held the 98 percent hostage because they want tax breaks for the top 2 percent."
Obama jumped on opportunities to paint Romney as out of step with mainstream values.
"When Gov. 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. That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work," the president said.
Romney recounted his background promoting women throughout his career.
"I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not," Romney added.
No recent trend is more ominous for Obama than the signs that Romney is cutting into Obama's advantage with women. A Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll last week found Obama's double-digit lead among likely female voters had disappeared, and on Tuesday a Gallup/USA Today poll of swing state voters across the country found the same.
Likewise, the president tried to put Romney on the defensive in appealing to critical Hispanic voters, portraying him as hostile to immigrants.
"During the Republican primary, he said, 'I will veto the Dream Act' that would allow these young people to have access. His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, 'We're going to encourage self-deportation.' Making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave," Obama said. "He called the Arizona law a model for the nation. Part of the Arizona law said that law enforcement officers could stop folks because they suspected maybe they looked like they might be undocumented workers and check their papers. You know what? If my daughter or yours looks to somebody like they're not a citizen, I don't want — I don't want to empower somebody like that."
The president did little to lay out an agenda for a second term. And he was on the defensive over his administration's handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador.
"We are going to find out who did this and we're going to hunt them down, because one of the things that I've said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them," Obama said.
The president looked visibly angry as Romney questioned how long it took the administration to label the attack as an act of terror.
"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," Romney said.
"Get the transcript," Obama snapped, and Crowley agreed that the president called it an act of terror early on.
"Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" the president said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]