HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) — An aggressive President Barack Obama accused challenger Mitt Romney of peddling a “sketchy deal” to fix the U.S. economy and playing politics with the deadly terrorist attack in Libya in a Tuesday night debate crackling with energy and emotion just three weeks before the election.
Romney pushed back hard, saying the middle class “has been crushed over the last four years” under Obama’s leadership and that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find work. He contended the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was part of an unraveling of the administration’s foreign policy.
The president was feistier from the outset than he had been in their initial encounter two weeks ago, when he turned in a listless performance that sent shudders through his supporters and helped fuel a rise by Romney in opinion polls nationally and in some battleground states.
When Romney said Tuesday night that he had a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama said, “Gov. Romney says he’s got a five-point plan. 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 and Romney disagreed, forcefully and repeatedly — about taxes, the bailout of the auto industry, measures to reduce the deficit, energy, pay equity for women and health care as well as foreign policy across 90 minutes of a town-hall style debate.
Immigration prompted yet another clash, Romney saying Obama had failed to pursue the comprehensive legislation he promised at the dawn of his administration, and the president saying Republican obstinacy made a deal impossible.
Romney gave as good as he got.
“You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking,” the former Massachusetts governor said at one point while Obama was mid-sentence, drawing a gasp from the audience. He said the president’s policies had failed to jumpstart the economy and had cramped energy production.
The open-stage format left the two men free to stroll freely across a red-carpeted stage, and they did. Their clashes crackled with energy and tension, and the crowd watched raptly as the two sparred while struggling to appear calm and affable before a national television audience.
While most of the debate was focused on policy differences, there was one more-personal moment, when Obama said Romney had investments in China.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” Romney interrupted.
“You know, I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours,” shot back Obama to his wealthier rival.
Obama noted Romney’s business background to rebut his opponent’s plans to fix the economy and prevent federal deficits from climbing ever higher.
“Now, Gov. 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.”
Countered Romney, a few minutes later, “It does add up.”
Under the format agreed to in advance, members of an audience of 82 uncommitted voters posed questions to the president and his challenger.