President Obama—a punching bag in the first presidential debate—became a sledge hammer in his second showdown Tuesday night against Republican Mitt Romney.
In what might prove to be the decisive 90 minutes of the presidential campaign, both flashed moments of seething anger during the town hall-style forum in New York. Their raised voices and intimidating glares conveyed a sense of mutual disdain for the other. The dislike went well beyond their differences on tax, energy, immigration, and the recent al Qaeda-affiliated attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The former Massachusetts governor has been climbing in the polls after successfully positioning himself as a champion of the middle class during their first Oct. 3 debate. Obama swung hard to stop that assent, labeling Romney—who co-founded the private equity firm Bain Capital—as a conservative extremist who will coddle the wealthy.
“Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five point plan, he has a one point plan—and that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules,” Obama said. “That’s been his philosophy in the private sector. That’s been his philosophy as governor. That’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate—you can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, layoff the workers, strip away their pensions, and still make money.”
A CNN poll of registered voters who watched the debate indicates the gambit might have worked. Forty-six percent chose Obamaas the victor, with 39 percent for Romney.
Republican pollster John Zogby gave the win to the Democratic incumbent. “Obama was on fire,” he said, while Romney “lacked details and simply got caught in representing some ideas that were very different from the Mitt Romney who debated 19 times with his GOP opponents.”
Romney rehashed his long-time argument that Obama had “crushed” the middle class by failing to lead the economy all the way out of recession—with unemployment at a historically high 7.8 percent despite government spending that produced four straight years of deficits in excess of $1 trillion.
In one particularly heated exchange, he dismissed Obama’s professed support of fossil fuels. “The proof of whether the strategy is working is the price you pay at the pump,” said Romney, knowing that gasoline prices on Long Island, New York had nearly doubled from $1.80 a gallon over the past four years.
Drilling on federal lands is down 14 percent between 2010 and 2011, Romney continued. Obama disputed the claim that he was hostile to oil and natural gas—and records kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate that overall production has increased since 2008.
“I don’t think anyone truly believes that you’re a person who’s going to be pushing for oil, gas and coal,” Romney responded.
Honesty and candor were frequently at the heart of their disputes. Romney would press the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, for additional time to address statements he deemed inaccurate, while Obama repeated variations on the refrain, “What Gov. Romney said just isn’t true.”
When the GOP candidate hit back, he often opened himself up to an uppercut. Trying to shake-off criticism about his offshore accounts and investments in companies that outsourced to China, Romney noted that Obama also had foreign holdings.