U.S. President Barack Obama came out swinging against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a tense second debate in which the candidates sparred on the economy, health care, immigration and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.
The first polls after Tuesday night's debate at Hofstra University - moderated by CNN journalist Candy Crowley - gave Obama a slim victory over the former Massachusetts governor, who kept up the harsh attacks on the incumbent's record that he also delivered on Oct. 3 in Denver.
Eighty undecided voters were in the audience for the town-hall debate and 11 of them asked questions of the candidates, each of whom walked around the stage and regularly sought to talk over and interrupt his rival.
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 at the outset of the debate, immediately showing a sharp contrast with the subdued demeanor he exhibited in Denver.
The president repeatedly accused his opponent of misleading the public, saying "very little of what Governor Romney said is true" after the Republican insisted that oil production had fallen during his administration and blamed him for the rising price of gasoline.
Obama also went on the attack on health care, saying Romney's plan would not ensure that women have access to contraception through their insurance coverage and that he "feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making."
Romney fired back by saying "every woman in America should have access to contraceptives ... and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong."
The mutual attacks continued throughout the night.
Obama said Romney would be "the last person" to get tough on China for unfair competition due to his investments in companies doing business there.
Romney, meanwhile, hammered away at the president on "Fast and Furious," a federal undercover sting that allegedly allowed some 2,000 weapons to be smuggled into Mexico in a purported bid to take down high-ranking cartel figures.
The program was shut down in late 2010 after guns traced to the program were linked to the killing in Arizona of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Obama at times sought to score points by painting Romney as more "extreme" than former President George W. Bush, saying that on immigration "Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation."
"He called the Arizona law a model for the nation. Part of the Arizona law (SB 1070) said law enforcement officers could stop folks because they suspected maybe they looked like they might be undocumented workers and checked their papers," the president said.
He was referring to the "show me your papers provision," a section of the law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that requires police officers to check an individual's immigration status during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest."
Romney responded by saying Obama pledged to file an immigration overall bill in his first year to promote legal immigration and halt the illegal flow of migrants across the border but failed to do so.
"We should make sure that our legal system works," Romney said, adding that "So I will not grant amnesty to those who've come here illegally."
He did, however, say that children of unauthorized immigrants "should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States."
On foreign policy, the only back-and-forth centered around ththe deadly Sept. 11 attack by armed militias on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stephens was killed.
Romney accused the Obama administration of waiting "many days" before describing the violence as a terrorist attack as opposed to a spontaneous demonstration and said the incident "calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East."
The president responded sternly that "the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive."
Only one mention was made of Latin America during the evening, with Romney saying that he would "dramatically expand trade" with that region.
"It's been growing about 12 percent per year over a long period of time. I want to add more free trade agreements so we have more trade," the Republican said.
In the candidates' closing statements, the most notable moment was Obama's reference to a closed-door videotaped remark by Romney at a fundraiser that "47 percent" of Americans depend on the government, do not pay taxes and consider themselves victims.
"When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about," Obama said, before specifically mentioning Social Security recipients, veterans and students.
His remarks came at the very end of the debate and Romney did not have a chance to respond.
The Republican will have that opportunity during the next debate, which is scheduled for Florida on Oct. 22 and will be the last one before the Nov. 6 election. EFE