HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — A combative President Obama, seeking to redeem himself from an earlier poor debate performance, went toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney Tuesday night at their second debate and accused the Republican nominee of fabricating attacks and distorting both of their records on everything from energy policy to terrorism.
For his part, Mr. Romney said the president is offering promises that sound good for the future, “but that’s not what you’ve done in the last four years — that’s the problem.” He said the Obama legacy was deep deficits and continued unemployment that have “crushed” the middle class, and he vowed that his own five-point plan to boost energy and build small businesses will succeed.
Mr. Obama, clearly feeling the pressure to step up after his lethargic Oct. 3 debate performance in Denver, replied with a fierce and relentless attack on the fundamentals of Mr. Romney’s economic credentials.
“Governor 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,” he 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.”
The two men squared off at Hofstra University in New York, and this debate was a town-hall format. That meant the two men stood with microphones in hand, in front of an audience of 80 voters armed with questions.
Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN selected which of them got to ask their questions.
The debate seemed to break new ground on some major issues.
Mr. Romney appeared to open up the chance for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to get a chance at a path to citizenship — something he’d generally opposed, except in instances in which they agreed to join the U.S. military.
“Those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States,” he said.
“I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home,” he said, accusing Mr. Romney of politicizing the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
Mr. Romney, though, said it took the president two weeks to acknowledge that the attack was exclusively a terrorist assault, rather than a mob reaction to an anti-Islam film, as his administration first said.
But Mr. Obama said he talked about terror in his first remarks the day after the attack from the Rose Garden on Sept. 12, which is indeed true. At that time, he said: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
At one point, the two men even stood toe-to-toe and attacked each other’s veracity on oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
“In the last four years, you cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half,” Mr. Romney charged, saying production of oil is down 14 percent on federal lands under Mr. Obama.
“Not true, Governor Romney,” the president interrupted.
“So how much did you cut them by?” Mr. Romney asked.
“It’s not true,” Mr. Obama replied.
Fact-checkers have rated the 14 percent drop in 2011 as an accurate claim — but the details of the evening’s exchanges were mostly lost amid the theater of the two men vying for the most powerful job in the world, talking straight to voters.
One woman pressed Mr. Romney to explain his tax plan, saying she was worried he would take away some of the tax breaks such as mortgage and education loan interest deductions she relies on.
Mr. Romney said he wants to cut tax rates across the board, but would also limit some of those special tax breaks — though he again declined to give specifics, saying it should all be open for debate in the next Congress. He did vow, however, that the wealthiest 5 percent will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax burden.
“I’m going to eliminate tax credits and deductions on the high end,” he said. “I’m not going to have the high end pay less that they pay now.”
For his part, Mr. Obama said he has a record of lowering tax cuts for the middle class and small businesses, and he wants to continue that, while raising taxes on the wealthy “a little more.”
He also said Mr. Romney’s tax plan math doesn’t add up and that he can’t boost defense spending, balance the budget and keep the share of taxes paid by the wealthy at the same high level while following through on his tax rate cuts, which total $5 trillion.
“It costs about $5 trillion,” Mr. Obama said. “Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs, even though the military’s not asking for them. That’s $7 trillion. He also wants to continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. That’s another trillion dollars. That’s $8 trillion.”
When asked which deductions and loopholes Mr. Romney would close in order to ensure the tax cuts don’t add to the deficit, Mr. Obama said “he can’t tell you” and blasted his GOP rival for paying just 14 percent on his taxes.
“If somebody came to you, Governor, with a plan that said, here, I want to spend 7 [trillion dollars] 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 have taken such a sketchy deal,” he said. “And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”
The debate began with a 20-year-old college student, Jeremy, asking whether he’d be able to get a job when he graduates.
Mr. Romney promised him he would.
“It’s not going to be like the last four years. The middle class has been crushed over the last four years, and jobs have been too scarce,” the former governor said. “When you come out in 2014, I presume I’m going to be president — I’m going to make sure you get a job.”
For his part Mr. Obama told voters to judge him by actions such as the auto industry, which he boosted by expanding the government bailout begun under President George W. Bush. He said Mr. Romney, a former businessman, would have let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt, which would have cost more than one million jobs.
“We bet on the auto industry and it came surging back – that’s what I want to do for the whole country,” the president said.
Mr. Romney replied that Mr. Obama, too, put Detroit auto companies through bankruptcy, which they emerged from leaner and more competitive. He said that was what he wanted, too.
That first debate earlier this month gave Mr. Romney a tangible boost in the polls, and he has continued that momentum. Hours before Tuesday’s debate, Gallup released its latest poll numbers showing Mr. Romney hitting 50 percent support among likely voters, or 4 percentage points more than the president.
State polls show the Republican narrowing the gap or taking the lead in some battleground states and even showed him poised to expand the field of states in play. A new Quinnipiac University Poll Tuesday showed Mr. Obama leading by only 4 percentage points in Pennsylvania — a state that has been out of the GOP’s reach for more than a decade.
And where Mr. Romney had a bad September, suffering self-inflicted wounds based on caught-on-camera comments he made saying that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and see themselves as victims, Mr. Obama has had the rougher October.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama seemed to answer many of those questions and also raised a key attack on Mr. Romney — the 47 percent remarks — at the very end of the debate, leaving the Republican no chance to reply.
Mr. Obama said those 47 percent include seniors and the military, and said they are who he is working for in office.
“I want to fight for them. That’s what I’ve been doing the last four years,” he said.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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