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POLITICS: White House

Obama returns fire in second presidential debate

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

President Obama engaged in a verbal slugfest with Mitt Romney during a town hall style debate Tuesday as he looked to prove his mettle and reenergize Democrats made nervous by a dismal showing in the first forum between the White House contenders.

Obama spent much of the night in Hempstead, N.Y., painting Romney as someone who has been vague on his economic proposals while hiding his extreme social views.

But the former Massachusetts governor returned fire, blasting Obama's first-term record of stagnant economic growth, poor job production and runaway deficits.

For Obama, the blueprint was clear: come out swinging to correct the impression of a passive, disengaged campaigner he left with the American people after the first debate. Romney showcased a high level of energy -- but unlike last time, Obama seemed up to the task as well.

The most common phrase uttered by Obama at Hofstra University was, "That's not true, governor."

In his opening salvo, Obama hit Romney for his position on the auto bailout, part of a broader effort to paint Romney as unsympathetic to the plight of the middle class.

"Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan -- to make sure that people at the top play by a different set of rules," Obama said.

But Romney said that Obama's talk was cheap after four years of broken promises.

"If you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get -- a repeat of the last four years," Romney said.

The Republican took Obama to task for failing to cut the deficit in half -- as he pledged -- overseeing a steady rise in gas prices and fostering an unfriendly environment for small business.

Though most of the night was devoted to domestic policy, Obama was forced to address his administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi -- an issue given even more prominence after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the blame for the attacks that killed four Americans. "I am ultimately responsible for what's taking place there, because these are my folks, and I'm the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home," Obama said.

But Romney appeared to miss an opening on the question -- focusing on whether Obama had described the attacks as terrorism on the day after the embassy assault. Obama had, in fact, referred to an "act of terror." And the GOP challenger failed to drive home the fact that the administration did refuse to acknowledge that the assault was a coordinated terrorist assault for nearly two weeks.

The intimate, town hall setting presented a new challenge for Romney, who attempted to come off as personable and in touch with the concerns of those in the arena.

"I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people," Romney said, pushing back against the Democratic narrative. "I'm looking to cut taxes for middle-income people."

Obama's task was to portray Romney as someone incapable of understanding the struggles of poor and middle-class Americans without looking overly hostile to the challenger. The president attempted to do so by poking fun at Romney's personal wealth, called him a "pioneer in outsourcing" and highlighting the Republican's remarks that nearly half the country was dependant on the federal government.

When Romney questioned Obama about investments in his pension plan, Obama quipped, "I haven't looked at my pension. It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take that long."

Both candidates also attempted to make inroads with suburban women, arguably the most important voting bloc this November.

Romney pointed out that 3.5 million more women were living in poverty than when Obama took office. To woo female voters, Obama opted to focus on social policy, saying Romney had "gone to a more extreme place" than President George W. Bush on reproductive rights.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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