WASHINGTON — President Obama leaped back into the presidential campaign Tuesday, aggressively challenging rival Mitt Romney in a tense debate likely to reset the contest as it heads into the final weeks.
Mr. Obama was all the things he was not in his first faceoff with Mr. Romney: energetic, engaged, quick to defend his record, and even quicker to tear into Mr. Romney. At points, he even jumped off his seat to challenge Mr. Romney.
Eager to score points from the opening minutes to the last, he cast Mr. Romney as an elitist who would help the rich, a chameleon all but lying to conceal his real agenda, a man whose scorn for the poor and working classes was revealed only in the secretly taped remarks in which Mr. Romney derided 47 percent of the nation as freeloaders.
Mr. Romney gave as good as he got through most of the debate, reminding voters at every chance of the weak economy under four years of Mr. Obama’s leadership. But he stumbled at a turn over the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya, an unforced error that let Mr. Obama score at what otherwise might have been a moment of vulnerability.
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., likely helped Mr. Obama re-energize Democrats who were discouraged at his performance in the first debate, and sends the two rivals into their final clash Monday grappling for a breakout.
Most eyes were on Mr. Obama from the onset as he looked for ways stylistic and substantive to show voters he eagerly wants the job and that Mr. Romney should not have it. In that first debate, he was passive at times, looking down at notes rather than making eye contact, and failing to raise such topics as Mr. Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent.
Mr. Obama worked throughout to tar Romney as a friend to the rich and powerful. “His plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies,” he said of Mr. Romney’s push for more energy production.
He lambasted Mr. Romney’s plan to cut taxes, saying they would necessarily force tax increases on the middle class.
“You’re going to be paying for it,” Mr. Obama said. “You can’t buy the sales pitch.”
Mr. Obama all but called Romney a liar.
“What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” he said of Mr. Romney’s comments on the auto industry.
“Very little of what Governor Romney just said is true,” he said of Mr. Romney’s comments on energy.
Mr. Obama at times sat at the edge of his stool, rising quickly to physically challenge Mr. Romney face to face rather than waiting for Romney to finish and be seated.
Challenged by Mr. Romney the first time, Mr. Obama then walked away and faced the audience to answer a question. The second time Mr. Obama stood to confront him, Mr. Romney waved him back, “You’ll get your chance in a moment.”
When he wasn’t jumping out of his seat, Mr. Obama watched Mr. Romney intently. He wasn’t Joe Biden, laughing or making hand gestures when the other guy was talking, as the vice president did in his debate with Republican Paul Ryan.
But Mr. Obama kept his eyes on his adversary, a noteworthy change from the first debate when he was often caught on camera looking down at his notes or away, giving the impression he was disinterested.
Mr. Romney refused to cede the stage, however, standing forward rather than returning to his seat while Mr. Obama spoke to the live audience in the town-hall-style meeting.
Mr. Romney stayed on message most of the evening, hammering away at economic anxiety about lost jobs, rising poverty, and shrinking paychecks.
“The President’s policies . . . haven’t put people to work,” he said. “Middle-income families have been crushed,” he added.
He made a misstep, however, on the Obama Administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
Mr. Obama stated he called the attack a terrorist act the next day, brushing aside suggestions the White House spent weeks giving misleading accounts that blamed the attacks on a riotous response to anti-Muslim video.
Mr. Romney challenged Mr. Obama’s assertion.
“Check the transcript,” Mr. Obama interrupted, and moderator Candy Crowley noted the President did use the word in his day-after comment. “Say that a little louder, Candy,” a confident Obama said.
She went on to note it did take two weeks for the whole story to emerge that there was never an anti-American protest outside the consulate.
But by then Mr. Obama had appeared to score.