HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — There were jabs from the right and jabs from the left on Tuesday at Hofstra University. Both presidential candidates came out swinging in a wide-ranging debate that covered job creation, energy regulation, energy drilling, and auto company bailouts.
Over the course of the 90-minute debate the candidates talked over the other, accused each other of lying, and claimed the other relied on inaccurate figures and mischaracterized policy positions.
Free from the constraints of a lecturn-style debate, they met in the middle of the stage at times, but came nowhere near the middle on policy issues. At one point both walked toward the middle of the stage and engaged in a short back-and-forth about energy policy, talking over each other and resisting CNN moderator Candy Crowley’s attempts to restore order.
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Mr. Obama immediately attacked Mr. Romney on his economic plan, his solution to gas prices, and his failure to support the auto industry bailout. Mr. Romney recommended bankruptcy for the automakers in 2008.
“What Governor Romney said just isn’t true,” Obama said. “He wanted to take them into bankruptcy without any way to stay open.”
In an early zinger, Mr. Obama blasted Mr. Romney’s five-point plan to propose jobs.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that the folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy,” Mr. Obama said, his demeanor markedly changed from the first presidential debate in which he appeared tired and unengaged.
He described his rival’s approach this way: “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.”
Mr. Romney called that characterization “way off the mark.”
In another heated exchange, the former Massachusetts governor accused the President of blocking jobs in the energy sector by enacting regulations that are too stringent, by opposing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and by pursuing criminal action when oil drilling caused birds to die in North Dakota.
“This has not been Mr. Gas, Mr. Oil or Mr. Coal,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Obama said he’s tried to be consistent.
Mr. Romney interrupted. “That’s not what you’ve done in the last four years,” he said, say energy production on federal land is down 14 percent.
“Not true Governor Romney,” Mr. Obama quickly responded as the two walked toward each other on stage.
“It’s absolutely true,” Mr. Romney responded. “I don’t think anybody really believes that you’re a person that’s going to be pushing for oil or gas or coal.”
Audience members also grilled the candidates. A student wanted assurances that there will be good jobs available when he graduates. A telecommunications worker wanted to know why the White House didn’t better protect Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others killed last month in the Libyan embassy.
Mr. Romney used the opportunities to blast the President’s response to issues both foreign and domestic and accused him of tending to political events when he should have been focused on the aftermath of the embassy attack. He also said the President took too long to acknowledge the killings were part of a terrorist plot, not the result of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim film.
Mr. Obama said he is concerned for ambassadors’ safety and that he increased security in the region after the attack.
It was their second of three debates this election season.
This time the queries didn’t come from a well-rehearsed journalist but from undecided Nassau County, N.Y., voters, some of whom spoke nervously or had to refer to notes to finish asking their questions.
It’s a format the President likes, said Robert Gibbs, a senior campaign adviser and former White House spokesman.
Melissa Rospek was among 300 Hofstra students selected in a lottery to watch the debate from risers above the stage.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually go to the debate and be involved as a student and I really wanted to see it,” said Miss Rospek, 19.
In an interview before the debate she said she supports Mr. Obama but that she would be open-minded enough to change her mind.
“I don’t want to say I’m absolutely solidly Obama until I hear what both of them have to say about health care and women’s rights as far as access to birth control and abortion,” she said.
When the topic came up during the debate Mr. Obama pointed out that his opponent wants employers to decide whether employees get insurance coverage of contraception.
Not true, Mr. Romney said.
“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,” he said. “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”
Mr. Obama said he’s grown jobs, improved the economy, provided more access to health care, ended the war in Iraq, and cut taxes for middle-class families.
Mr. Romney responded by saying the country is worse off than before the President took office.
“I think you know that these last four years haven’t been so good as the President just described and that you don’t feel like you’re confident that the next four years are going to be much better either,” he told the audience. “We just can’t afford four more years like the last four years.”
Surrogates from both campaigns flooded the media filing center before, during and after the debate.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who supported former Utah Gov. John Huntsman during the Republican primary, said Mr. Romney has the right blend of business and civic experience to lead the country and that he has shown he is a decisive problem solver.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Mr. Obama supporter, disagreed.
“What Governor Romney is offering is more of a fantasy football kind of approach: stand back and let things happen, to stand back and let mortgage foreclosures reach rock bottom [and] to stand back and let the middle class shrink,” Mr. O’Malley said.
Going into the debate, the candidates were in a dead heat according to recent polls. Mr. Romney’s numbers have been creeping up since the Denver debate.
A new poll by Gallup and USA Today put Mr. Romney ahead of the President in some key states, where numbers were bolstered by increased support from women, a demographic that historically has favored Mr. Obama.
The candidates’ third and final matchup will be in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is Washington bureau chief for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Tracie Mauriello at: email@example.com, or 703-996-9292.