HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – In a showdown that analysts predict could tip the scale in the race for the White House, Obama and Romney hammered one another on topics such as unemployment, taxes, gas prices, health care, immigration policy, guns and the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
CNN's Candy Crowley moderated the second presidential debate, which took the form of a town-hall meeting here at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island. "Uncommitted voters" in the audience asked questions of the candidates.
Addressing America's unemployment crisis
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For the first question, a college student asked whether the candidates could ensure that he could get a job after graduating.
Romney promised to keep the federal Pell Grant program and federal loan program "growing." He also emphasized the need for job growth and cited Massachusetts' program to employ top students.
"I want you to be able to get a job," he said. "With half of college kids graduating this year without a job, that's unacceptable. I know what it takes to make sure you have the kind of opportunity you deserve. I know what it takes to create jobs."
Obama promised to build manufacturing jobs, invest in education, develop solar, wind and biofuel energy and rebuild roads and schools.
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He accused Romney of wanting to force auto companies into bankruptcy and trying to help those with higher incomes pay fewer taxes than middle-class families. He claimed Romney's tax cuts would cost $20 billion, plus $7 trillion for the U.S. military and another $1 trillion to keep Bush's tax cuts.
Obama charged, "We haven't heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and cutting Planned Parenthood."
Soaring gas prices and limited energy production
A second questioner asked whether the candidates believe it's the government's responsibility to reduce gas prices. Once again, Obama emphasized "green energy" solutions to reduce demand for fuel.
"Romney's plan is to allow the oil and natural gas companies to write his oil policy," Obama charged.
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But Romney countered that Obama recently cut oil and gas production in half.
Romney said he supports developing energy resources such as oil, gas, coal and renewable energy. He focused on the need for increased jobs and energy independence by green-lighting more oil drilling and an oil pipeline from Canada. Obama responded by saying America's oil importation is down by 20 percent.
"How much did you cut licenses and permits on federal lands and federal waters?" Romney asked Obama.
Even after repeating his question, Romney received no answer.
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Obama said his administration took away leases and reissued them "so we could make a profit."
But Romney countered that Obama's energy policies are failing.
"If you are paying more at the pump, the policy is not working," he argued. "If the president's energy policies are working, you will see the price of energy come down."
However, Obama claimed that the price of gas was $1.86 at the time he took office because the economy was tanking.
"When I took office, oil was down because the economy was on the point of collapse," Obama blasted. "Romney will put economy back into same mess. We've built enough pipeline to wrap around the earth once."
Tax breaks and deductions for middle class
The third question focused on tax breaks and deductions, such as the mortgage and charitable deductions and education and child tax credits. Romney said he wants to reduce the tax burden on middle-income taxpayers and limit deductions for the top 5 percent of taxpayers. He promised he wouldn't raise taxes on the middle class because "over the last four years, they've been buried."
Obama replied, "I want to give middle class families and those striving to get into the middle class some relief." He said his administration cut taxes for middle class families over the last four years, arguing, "I want to continue those tax cuts for middle class families and small businesses."
He added, "We've also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more."
Obama suggested returning to Bill Clinton-era tax rates for Americans who make more than $250,000 a year, claiming it would be "good for the economy and for job creation."
Romney replied that only reducing tax rates would allow small businesses to "keep more money and hire more people."
Health care and President George W. Bush
Other questions touched on gender wage disparities in the workplace and health care.
Obama touted Obamacare's requirement for employers to provide coverage of abortion-inducing drugs and said such policies were about "women's issues, family issues, economic issues." He said, "I've got two daughters, and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities as anybody's sons have."
Asked whether he is different from President George W. Bush, Romney answered that he has a robust energy policy, plans to "crack down on China," push for a balance budget and champion small business.
"Our party has been focused on big business for too long," Romney said. "Everything I'll do is designed to help small businesses grow. ... My priority is jobs."
Obama argued, "The centerpiece of his economic plan is tax cuts." He accused Romney of investing in Chinese companies, trying to "turn Medicare into a voucher" program, pushing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and being more "extreme" with regard to social policy than former President Bush.
Obama also attacked Romney's promise to repeal Obamacare, claiming it was the same plan implemented in Massachusetts.
Romney emphasized that there are 23 million Americans without work under Obama's leadership.
He itemized a list of Obama's broken promises on immigration, deficit reduction, unemployment, economic growth, Obamacare, Medicare and Social Security reform and tax and regulatory policies.
Romney said, "The only reason unemployment seems a little lower today is because so many people have dropped out of the workforce."
Immigration policy: Legal versus illegal
A Hispanic woman asked Romney about his plans for illegal immigrants.
"We welcome legal immigrants into this country," Romney said. "I also think we should give visas, green cards, to people who graduate with skills we need." He said he would not grant "amnesty" to those who come to America illegally or give them driver's licenses. However, he said children of illegal immigrants should be given a "pathway" to citizenship, such as military service.
Obama said America is a "nation of immigrants ... but we're also a nation of laws." He said America needs to fix "the broken immigration system" and make it easier for immigrants to come into the nation. Obama also said the flow of illegal immigrants into America is the lowest in 40 years, adding that children of illegal immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship. He blasted Romney for encouraging "self-deportation" and "making life so miserable on folks who don't leave."
Romney promised, "We're not going to round up 12 million illegal, undocumented people." He said if illegal immigrants can't find the job they want, they will leave the country.
Obama interrupted, and Crowley demanded Romney "make it short."
The exchange devolved into a shouting match for a short period of time.
Obama and Romney both promised to pass "comprehensive immigration reform."
Benghazi attack on U.S. consulate
Regarding the Benghazi attack in which four Americans were killed, Obama said, "Nobody's more concerned about their safety and security than I am." After the attack, Obama said he gave orders to beef up embassy security, investigate the murders and find those responsible. He accused Romney of "turning national security into a political issue."
Romney argued that many days passed before Americans were told this was "a terrorist attack" rather than a demonstration. He said, on the day following the murders, Obama flew around the country to appear at political fundraisers.
"This calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East," he said, adding that Iran is closer to developing a nuclear bomb.
He also blasted Obama for his "apology tour" after taking office.
Prior to the debate, strategists had predicted there would be questions about the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Just 24 hours before the second debate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided Obama some political cover by accepting blame for failures leading up to the murder of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi.
"I take responsibility," Clinton said, adding, "I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha."
During the debate, Obama said, "Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me. I'm the president. I'm responsible. ... The suggestion that anyone on my team ... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own is offensive. That's not what we do."
Crowley interjected, "He did call it an act of terror."
Gun control and 'Operation Fast & Furious'
On the issue of gun control, Obama was asked what he will do "to limit the availability of assault weapons." Obama said the U.S. must enforce laws and keep guns out of the "hands of criminals."
"Weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets," he said, adding that he would like to get an "assault-weapons ban reintroduced" and "catch violent impulses before they occur."
Romney said he is not in favor of new legislation limiting gun ownership, but he does believe America should address its "culture of violence" by reinforcing traditional family roles and education.
He raised the issue of "Operation Fast & Furious," calling it "one of the great tragedies" under this administration.
"I'd like to understand who it was that did this," Romney said, pressing Obama.
Crowley interjected, redirecting the debate away from "Fast & Furious."
Toward the end of the debate, Obama said he believes "everybody should have a fair shot" and attacked Romney for his statement that 47 percent of Americans are dependent upon government.
Meanwhile, Fox News featured a Frank Luntz focus group of undecided voters watching the debate from Nevada. They overwhelmingly declared Romney to be the winner.
Obama 'more aggressive' than 1st debate
While the Obama campaign had promised the president would be more "aggressive" this time around, the president was warned not to "overcorrect" after his weak performance during the first debate, which drew a sizable TV audience of 67 million, according to Nielsen, the largest since 1992.
Meanwhile, a national Gallup poll released just before the second presidential debate indicated Romney is leading Obama by at least four points at 50-46 percent.
As WND reported, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners the national media were already preparing to declare Obama the winner before the debate had taken place.
"If Obama shows up tonight and successfully breathes, he's going to be declared the winner," Limbaugh said prior to the event.
Also, Breitbart.com predicted that "as long as Obama doesn't fall off stage," the media would declare an "Obama comeback" and call him the winner.
According to an ABC News poll following the first debate, 71 percent of likely voters said Romney won the initial match. Romney, who had raised the bar for GOP debate performance in the first event, sought to match his earlier triumph in the second debate.
Obama's lackluster performance is said to have erased his slight lead in recent months and drawn the fury of many of his high-profile supporters and left-leaning commentators.
Immediately after the first event, Ed Schultz declared, "I don't think he explained himself very well on the economy. I think he was off his game. I was absolutely stunned tonight."
Chris Matthews asked, "Where was Obama tonight?"
The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter, panicked: "He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight."
Bill Maher joked, "Obama made a lot of great points tonight. Unfortunately, most of them were for Romney."
Obama's supporters immediately began pressuring him to do better in the second debate after he appeared to be disengaged.
Analysts had predicted the format of the town hall debate in New York would present a challenge to the candidates, making it more difficult to attack one's political opponent due to the audience-driven question format.