Hempstead, N.Y. • President Barack Obama, facing a newly invigorated challenge from Mitt Romney, portrayed his rival as a former corporate raider who would favor the wealthy over the middle class and a political vacillator during their second debate Tuesday night, showing a fighting spirit he did not bring to their first meeting two weeks ago.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan,” Obama told the audience in one of his first answers. “He has a one-point plan: That plan is that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Following a shaky debate performance two weeks ago that helped Romney to gain a new edge in this pivotal last month of the race, Obama had promised to be more aggressive Tuesday, and from his very first question he took a shot at Romney, over his opposition to the Detroit automobile bailout.
Romney, who was seeking to use his momentum to woo those who had supported Obama four years ago, readily engaged, at one point stepping into Obama’s space while pushing him to answer his charge that oil production had dropped during his tenure.
Reflecting the charged, clenched and biting nature of the debate from its start, Romney told the president tartly, “This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal.”
Romney kept bringing the discussion back to the president’s record, saying that the nation should not “have to settle” for continued unemployment around 8 percent.
“We don’t have to live like this,” Romney said. “We can get this economy going again.”
During the debate, the two men repeatedly rose from their stools, addressing one another directly, as they moved around the stage. The men circled one another — closer and closer — as their voices grew sharper and louder in combative verbal exchanges. They talked over each other as they discussed issues like domestic energy production, jobs and taxes.
“What you’re saying is just not true,” Obama said.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment; I’m still speaking,” Romney said at one point, growing testy as the president tried to interject, drawing a gasp from the audience. “That wasn’t a question; that’s a statement.”
The posture of the candidates reflected the unpredictable new tenor in the race. They each showed little restraint in attacking each other intensely, with the audience taking a back seat to the two candidates. And they made frequent appeals that seemed directed at female voters, as they highlighted pocketbook issues like fair wages.
The moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, defied the rules of the presidential debate commission — negotiated by the two campaigns — pressing the candidates for a follow-up after the very first question. Crowley had made it clear that she would do that and had not signed anything agreeing to those conditions, but she also stood to the side and let the two men go after each other in the opening period of the debate.
The debate was a chance for a redo for Obama, who has had to live with images of himself seeming distracted and disengaged in the split-screen shots of the first debate — lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” — a stylistic stumble with substantive consequences.
This time, when he was not speaking he was looking energetically at Romney, the audience, the moderator and, perhaps most important, the camera, at one point winking as Romney spoke.
The two arrived for their second face-to-face encounter with the political ground beneath them appearing to shift, to Romney’s benefit.
Three weeks before Election Day, there was a sense within both parties that Romney had succeeded in using the first debate, on Oct. 3, to break through an important psychological barrier by putting himself on equal footing with Obama and showing a presidential bearing before an audience of roughly 70 million people.
Aides to Romney said that the initial debate had shattered the image of him as someone out to help the rich at the expense of the middle class, an impression that the Obama campaign had worked to create over the summer through a barrage of ads that the Republican candidate did not have the money to answer with his own.
Romney appeared to have found his bearings at an opportune moment, just as his campaign was starting its own huge advertising blitz — after months of lopsided pummeling by Obama on television — in the closing phase of the race.
On Tuesday, his campaign placed $12 million more in commercials in the nine major battleground states, including Florida, Ohio and Virginia, as well as North Carolina and New Hampshire. And in blatant appeal to female voters, it began running a new commercial featuring a woman who identifies herself as a former Obama voter who researched Romney’s record on abortion and found it was not as anti-abortion as Obama has said.
“You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme. So I looked into it,” says a woman in the ad. “Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all. In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life.”
Having managed in his first debate to appeal to more centrist voters and at the same time energize Republican base voters by showing he could effectively challenge the president, Romney sought in the second debate to make inroads among critical portions of the electorate he will need to steal away from Obama if he is to win.
Chief among them are women, among whom some polls show him to be making gains, and moderates who voted for the president four years ago but are uncommitted now.
The debate was held at Hofstra University on Long Island. Its format provided a setting that Obama has appeared more comfortable in, a town hall-style meeting in which 82 uncommitted voters posed questions under the guidance of Crowley as the candidates were allowed to move freely about the stage.
Obama arrived on Long Island after three days of intense debate practice at a secluded resort in Williamsburg, Va., which sat on the grounds of a golf course. But even though he is an avid golfer, advisers said he did not hit a single ball.
He watched the video from his first debate, a performance that frustrated many Democrats who complained he did not mount a vigorous fight.
On Tuesday, he was taking on a complicated challenge: to deliver his campaign’s attack that Romney is changing his political tone to hide more conservative positions that could alienate swing voters, but to do so without appearing too politically combative.
Before the debate, aides indicated that Obama was mindful not to appear as if overcompensating from his last debate by going too hard at Romney and alienating those who are looking for promises of bipartisanship — which Romney has been recently highlighting — in their presidential choice.
The audience was selected by Gallup from a random sample of all residents living in Nassau County. The voters chosen said they had no preference between Obama or Romney or were open to changing their minds before Election Day. The campaigns had joint input on Gallup’s methodology.
But neither camp had access to the list of questions that Crowley was free to choose from. There was considerable pressure on her before the debate, as both campaigns continued what has been an unusually intense effort to influence the moderator.
With the second debate behind now, the final 20 days of the race will play out across a fiercely competitive battleground of nine states, with a particular focus on Florida, Ohio and Virginia. They represent 60 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
The president was to head to Iowa and Ohio on Wednesday, with a visit to New Hampshire on Thursday. Romney was scheduled to campaign in Virginia. The candidates are set to hold their final debate Monday evening at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., in a 90-minute session focused on foreign policy.