DENVER -- After his lethargic showing in the first debate here two weeks ago, President Barack Obama charged that Mitt Romney had morphed into a more moderate version of himself.
After the second debate in New York Tuesday night, a town hall that turned combative right away, it's Obama who looked like an altogether different person, at least when you compare his two debate performances to date.
Whereas Obama seemed unwilling to engage with Romney in Denver, he couldn't wait to do it in Hempstead, New York, taking the first question from a college student about his meager job prospects in the stagnant economy and wasting no time in hitting Romney for opposing the auto industry bailouts.
The two candidates exchanged sharp barbs throughout the 90-plus minutes, acknowledging the audience of undecided voters but mostly sparring back and forth on everything from energy issues -- at one point, the two candidates walked towards each other on stage as if they were about to fight nose-to-nose -- to immigration policy, taxes, gun control and women in the workplace.
Obama hit Romney for paying a relatively low tax rate, for supporting Arizona's controversial immigration law and, at the debate's end, for his comments about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no taxes, getting the last word on the matter by touching on Romney's remark in his closing statement, which came after Romney's own, in which he preemptively referenced his own gaffe by saying he cares about "the 100 percent."
"I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future," Romney said, responding to a question asking the candidates to debunk something about themselves that's not true. "I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again."
But the biggest moment of the debate was a hot-tempered exchange on Libya, a subject that appeared to favor Romney, who's aggressively attacked Obama over his administration's response.
But it didn't play out as well as Romney's campaign had hoped.
Romney's criticism of the White House for its response to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassy, a question conservatives were hoping to hear, brought an angry rebuke from the President and a fact-check from moderator Candy Crowley of CNN.
"The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," Obama said. "That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as Commander in Chief."
Romney looked to remind Obama of his initial response to the attacks.
"You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror.
It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?" Romney said.
A stoic Obama asked Romney to proceed, but Crowley interjected that Obama had indeed referred to the attacks, albeit loosely, as an "act of terror."
The debate will be remembered for the apparent acrimony between the two candidates, locked in a tight race and fighting to sway a tiny and shrinking group of undecided voters.
Romney's aggressiveness with a president and the debate's moderator, and Obama's pointed one-liner about Romney's pension being bigger than his own seemed to most brightly illuminate the shared scorn between the two that was so evident throughout the debate.
Most polls of undecided voters showed a narrow victory for Obama. And while his supporters were relieved to see more punch from the president, it's unlikely that the second debate will undo all of the damage Obama did to his campaign in the first.
"Obama righted the ship tonight," said political analyst Eric Sondermann. "But does that mean it's back to where it was two weeks ago? Probably not.
"If it was a boxing match, the first debate was overwhelming on points. If this were a 15-round fight, you maybe give eight or nine rounds to the president and five or six to Romney. It's a very narrow decision. The question is, is that enough?"
A Public Policy Polling survey of Colorado voters who watched the debate showed a narrow win for Obama, by a margin of 48-44; his margin of victory was larger with Colorado independents, who gave the win to Obama by a larger 56-38 tally.
But a CNN/ORC flash poll, which showed a 46-38 percent win for Obama overall, offered some more positive news for Romney, who polled better than Obama on four issues: the deficit, taxes, healthcare and the economy.
On the economy
The sparring started right away, as the candidates debated their positions on the auto bailouts, perhaps the one issue that can explain the president's strength in the biggest battleground state of all, Ohio. Overall, post-debate polls indicated that respondents thought Romney did a better job of laying out a vision to create jobs and revive an economy still recovering at a slow rate. But, when the debate focused on the candidates' tax plans, Romney was again on the defensive.
Romney: "The middle-income families in America have been crushed over the last four years. So I want to get some relief to middle-income families. That's part -- that's part one.
Now, how about deductions? 'Cause I'm going to bring rates down across the board for everybody, but I'm going to limit deductions and exemptions and credits, particularly for people at the high end, because I am not going to have people at the high end pay less than they're paying now. The top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax the nation collects. So that'll stay the same. Middle-income people are going to get a tax break."
Obama: "We haven't heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that.
Now, Governor 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."
The animosity between the two candidates appeared to peak as the debate shifted to energy policies, the engagement bordering on physical as Romney and Obama, during a testy back-and-forth, stepped toward one another on the stage. While Romney ripped Obama for stifling production of traditional energy resources like oil, gas and coal, Obama responded by noting Romney's conflicting record as Massachusetts governor and even referred to lost wind jobs in Colorado when mentioning Romney's opposition to the renewal of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy manufacturers.
Romney: "This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal. Talk to the people that are working in those industries. I was in coal country. People grabbed my arms and said, "Please save my job."
"I'll get America and North America energy independent. I'll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know."
Obama: "We're actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration and my -- the previous president was an oil man. And natural gas isn't just appearing magically. We're encouraging it and working with the industry. And when I hear Governor Romney say he's a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when -- Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, 'This plant kills,' and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you're a big champion of coal."
Background: A video shows Romney, in 2003, siding with environmentalists during a showdown over the Salem Power Plant, which had been refusing to comply with new emissions rules in Massachusetts.
Appeals to women:
Both candidates aimed to appeal to women voters, the demographic that is likely to tip the election in suburban parts of swing states. Romney has closed the gap in national and swing state polls in the last two weeks, in large part, by cutting into and almost completely erasing the president's lead with women voters. A question on equal pay in the workplace started the conversation on women's issues, which continued throughout the debate as Obama looked to remind viewers about Romney's statements about "getting rid of" Planned Parenthood and his opposition to Obamacare's mandated coverage for contraception.
Romney: "We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?', and they brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.
"What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford."
Obama: "I just want to point out that when Gov. Romney's campaign was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter bill, whether he supported it? He said, 'I'll get back to you.' And that's not the kind of advocacy that women need in any economy. Now there are some other issues that have a bearing on how women succeed in the workplace. For example, their healthcare. You know a major difference in this campaign is that Gov. Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the healthcare choices that women are making. I think that's a mistake. In my healthcare bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a health issue, it's an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family's pocket. Gov. Romney not only opposed it, he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.
"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."
President Obama has long held a huge advantage with Latino voters, although that lead has diminished somewhat in the two weeks since the first debate. In the second debate Tuesday night, a young Hispanic girl asked Romney about work permits for undocumented workers, a question which lead to a wider back-and-forth on issues of illegal immigration. Romney, as he did in a Univision forum last month, blamed Obama for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform when he had a Democratic majority in Congress. Obama, meanwhile, focused on Romney's stance against the DREAM Act and his support for Arizona's controversial immigration law.
Romney: "We're going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who've come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally. What I will do is I'll put in place an employment verification system and make sure that employers that hire people who have come here illegally are sanctioned for doing so. I won't put in place magnets for people coming here illegally. So for instance, I would not give driver's licenses to those that have come here illegally as the president would.
"The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident. Now when the president ran for office, he said that he'd put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation — he'd file a bill in his first year that would reform our — our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration. He didn't do it. He had a Democrat House, a Democrat Senate, super majority in both Houses. Why did he fail to even promote legislation that would have provided an answer for those that want to come legally and for those that are here illegally today? What's a question I think the — the president will have a chance to answer right now."
Obama: "What I've said is we need to fix a broken immigration system and I've done everything that I can on my own and sought cooperation from Congress to make sure that we fix the system. The first thing we did was to streamline the legal immigration system, to reduce the backlog, make it easier, simpler and cheaper for people who are waiting in line, obeying the law to make sure that they can come here and contribute to our country and that's good for our economic growth.
"What I've also said is if we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that's what we've done. And what I've also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship.
"And that's what I've done administratively. Now, Governor Romney just said, you know he wants to help those young people too, but 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. 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."
On gun control:
Gun control isn't a topic likely to sway many swing voters, but it's one people with strong feelings on both sides were hoping would come up in one of the first two presidential debates. When an undecided voter asked both candidates about the availability of assault rifles, Obama spoke about meeting with victims of the Aurora theater shooting this past summer; he failed to give much of an explanation for why his administration has yet to act on his 2008 campaign promise to reinstate the ban on assault weapons. Romney used the question to pivot to the subject of the "Fast and Furious" investigation, an issue that excites the conservative base but probably won't sway undecided voters.
Obama: "There have been too many instances during the course of my presidency, where I've had to comfort families who have lost somebody. Most recently out in Aurora. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, actually, probably about a month, I saw a mother, who I had met at the bedside of her son, who had been shot in that theater. And her son had been shot through the head. And we spent some time, and we said a prayer and, remarkably, about two months later, this young man and his mom showed up, and he looked unbelievable, good as new. But there were a lot of families who didn't have that good fortune and whose sons or daughters or husbands didn't survive.
"So my belief is that, (A), we have to enforce the laws we've already got, make sure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We've done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we've got more to do when it comes to enforcement. But I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets. And so what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence. Because frankly, in my home town of Chicago, there's an awful lot of violence and they're not using AK-47s. They're using cheap hand guns. And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity; that our schools are working; that if there's violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control."
Romney: "I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on — on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We, of course, don't want to have automatic weapons, and that's already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons. What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.
"I believe if we do a better job in education, we'll — we'll give people the — the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that. But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the — the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea.