Hempstead, New York: US President Barack Obama hounded Mitt Romney on Libya and his corporate past on Tuesday as he got the better of his Republican challenger in a fiery debate three weeks from election day.
Bouncing back after being pilloried even by his own Democrats for appearing passive and listless during their first encounter in Denver, Obama was a different character on stage at Hofstra University, Long Island.
Instant surveys by CNN, which hosted the debate, and a host of other media organizations showed the more aggressive and combative Obama came out the clear winner against Romney, who spent more of the night on the back foot.
Rebounding from the ropes after a dismal showing two weeks ago that sent his poll numbers tumbling, the president was aware a second poor outing could doom him to the historical ignominy of a single term.
Early signs were that Obama’s passion-fuelled performance will revive optimism among Democrats over his re-election bid even if Romney made a strongly-worded case that the president had presided over economic failure.
In one spell-binding exchange, Obama stared directly at Romney and rebuked him over his criticism of his White House for its handling of an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September, which killed four Americans.
“The suggestion that anybody on my team, whether it’s a secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said, wagging his finger at Romney across the stage of the town hall-style debate.
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, not what I do as commander-in-chief,” Obama said, in the most memorable clash of one of the most ill-tempered and contentious White House debates ever.
Seeking to recover, Romney then seemed to stumble, accusing the president of taking days to call the attack, which killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, terrorism.
Obama snapped back that he had referred to the assault as “an act of terror” a day after the attack, telling Romney: “Check the transcript” before fixing his rival with a withering stare and saying “Please proceed governor.”
CNN moderator Candy Crowley fact-checked on the spot in Obama’s favour and the transcript of the president’s Rose Garden remarks on 12 September confirmed that he did indeed imply the assault was terrorism.
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” Obama said in the remarks, which contradict Republican claims he laid the blame fully on an anti-Muslim YouTube video made on US soil.
But despite that comment, some of Obama’s top aides had initially attributed the Benghazi violence to protests over an anti-Islam film and said it was not premeditated, before finally acknowledging much later that it was a terrorist attack.
Obama said for the first time on Tuesday he was “ultimately responsible” for the safety and security of the Americans killed in the attack. “I’m the president and I’m always responsible,” he said.
Seeking to recover from his apparent misstep, Romney pointed to the administration’s shifting explanations of the events in Benghazi, suggesting it had been an attempt to mislead.
“It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group,” he said.
Even before the debate had ended, Democrats were seizing on the moment to question Romney’s credentials to serve as commander-in-chief, while conservatives hammered Crowley for what they said was an unfair intervention.
As anger crackled in the debate hall, the candidates were freed from podiums at Hofstra University, New York and roamed the floor, often encroaching on each other’s personal space.
Minutes into the clash, Republican Romney and Democrat Obama stood just a few feet apart, trading charge and counter-charge in a furious verbal slanging match over economic policy.
Romney’s strongest moments came when he delivered stinging indictments of the Obama economy, charging the president with miserably failing to restore speedy jobs growth and cut ballooning deficits.
“The president wants to do well, I understand,” Romney said, adopting a sorrowful tone of voice. “But the policies he put in place have not let this economy take off as it could have.”
Obama slammed Romney over his attitude on women’s issues, but the former Massachusetts governor and multi-millionaire businessman hit back over debt.
“If the president were re-elected, we’d go to almost $20 trillion of national debt. This puts us on a road to Greece,” he said, before also vowing to stand up to China over what he says are trade and currency abuses.
Obama countered that Romney had invested in companies in China that were pioneers of outsourcing US jobs, saying: “Governor, you’re the last person who’s going to get tough on China.”
When Romney interrupted, asking Obama if his pension scheme included investment in low wage economies abroad, the president openly mocked his wealth.
“I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours. I don’t check it that often.”
Analysts agreed that Obama shaded the clash.
“I think the Republicans will be disappointed that Romney didn’t put him away, and the Democrats will be reassured that the president is in full press now,” said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College.
John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College said he thought “the president had a much better night than he had in Denver.”
“It was close, but I have to give the edge to Obama.”
Just 21 days before the election, the obvious antipathy between the candidates reflected stakes that could hardly be higher as national polls and the race in battleground states tightens into a dead heat.
Romney, 65, took the first question of the night, about the jobs crisis, and bemoaned the plight of ordinary Americans who he said had been “crushed over the last four years.”
“I know what it takes to create good jobs and to make sure you have the opportunity you deserve,” Romney said.
Obama, 51, was quick off his stool in response, looking 20-year-old questioner Jeremy Epstein straight in the eye, fixing him with an intense stare as he promised to quicken the US economic recovery.
In conclusion, he fired a parting shot at ill-judged Romney comments—which came to light last month in a secretly-taped video—writing off 47% of American voters who don’t pay income tax as “victims” reliant on government handouts.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47% of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about,” Obama said, pointing out that this included war veterans, students and soldiers.
“I want to fight for them,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”