Obama, Romney trade jabs in spirited presidential debate

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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- There were jabs from the right and jabs from the left Tuesday night at Hofstra University. Both presidential candidates came out swinging in a wide-ranging debate that covered job creation, energy regulation, drilling and auto company bailouts.

Over the course of the 90-minute debate they talked over each other, accused each other of lying and of relying on inaccurate figures and mischaracterized policy positions.

Free from the constraints of a podium-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.

In an early zinger, President Barack Obama blasted Republic challenger Mitt Romney's five-point plan to propose jobs.

"Gov. 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 too stringent regulations, 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, saying that energy production on federal land is down 14 percent.

"Not true Gov. Romney," Mr. Obama quickly responded as the two walked toward each other on stage.

"It's absolutely true," Mr. Romney said. "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 grilled the candidates on issues near and far to home. 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 killing was 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.

The stakes were especially high for Mr. Obama in this debate. He is coming off a lackluster performance in Denver two weeks ago. Melissa Rospek of Munhall 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, a sophomore majoring in English.

In an interview before the debate she said she supports Mr. Obama but that she could change her mind based on the debate.

"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 to employers to decide whether employees get insurance coverage of contraception.

Not true, Mr. Romney said once again.

"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. 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. Surrogates from both campaigns flooded the media filing center before, during and after the debate.

Among them were Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for Mr. Obama and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge for Mr. Romney.

Mr. 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.

Mr. O'Malley disagreed.

"What Gov. 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. This is the second presidential debate the university has hosted.

The candidates' third and final matchup will be Monday in Boca Raton, Fla.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292. First Published October 17, 2012 4:45 AM


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