HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — In a town-hall-style debate that was supposed to focus on questions from ordinary voters, President Obama and Mitt Romney circled each other on the stage and engaged in finger-pointing displays, arguing over energy, immigration and the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama ducked a question from audience member Kerry Ladka about who in the administration had denied a request for extra diplomatic security in Libya, and why. But Obama seized an opening when Romney challenged the president's statement that he had described the incident as an act of "terror" on the day after the attack.
"Is that what you're saying?" Romney said. "I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
Obama responded sharply, advising Romney to "get the transcript," as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN confirmed the accuracy of what Obama had said.
"He did in fact, sir," she told Romney, prompting Obama to respond, "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?"
According to a White House transcript of the Sept. 12 Rose Garden ceremony, Obama said, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," though he did not specifically declare that the Libya attack had been an act of terrorism.
Obama entered the night under pressure to rescue his candidacy with a more assertive debate performance. In contrast to his distracted mien in the first debate, the president watched his rival intently, sometimes leaning toward him as he listened from his perch on a stool. Romney, who returned time and again to the struggles of the American people, addressed the president directly, demanding answers in a prosecutorial manner.
An exchange over energy policy turned into a rapid back-and-forth over Romney's claim that oil and gas production on public lands was down under Obama. The two men spoke over each other as they faced off onstage.
"You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking," Romney said, and Obama turned his back to him and walked away.
The second presidential debate of the general election campaign, scheduled to end after 90 minutes, lasted nearly an additional 10. It was during the final moments that Obama zeroed in on Romney's remark about the 47% of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year and therefore, Romney had said, relied on government to fulfill their needs, a group that includes millions of seniors on Social Security and veterans.
"I want to fight for them. That's what I've been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds," said Obama, who had the last word. Romney could not respond, though he had said moments earlier, "I care about 100% of the American people."
From the outset, Obama was in an attacking mode. It was a signal that he had intended to engage his rival and defend himself far more aggressively than he did in the first debate, which recast the 2012 race after Romney was declared the winner. Polls taken since that event have shown Romney gaining and the contest statistically tied, three weeks before election day.
Though Obama's decision to engage his rival probably denied Romney a second consecutive debate win, the Republican stood his ground. He was at his best when he described the contours of a still struggling economy.
"We just can't afford four more years like the last four years," he said in response to audience member Michael Jones, who said he supported Obama in 2008 but that he was no longer as optimistic. "The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked. He's great as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision. That's wonderful, except we have a record to look at."
He challenged Obama over the high price of gasoline, the president's failure to advance immigration reform in his first year in office and his inability to reduce the government's budget deficit or see the jobless rate come down more sharply.
But Romney also appeared to contradict himself when he stated that all women should have access to contraception, though he supported an amendment in Congress that would allow employers to deny birth-control coverage to their workers. He refused to acknowledge that he had changed his position on restricting assault weapons and skirted a question about the hard-line stance he took during the GOP primaries on immigration, an issue the candidates debated for the first time Tuesday night.
Obama's wide-ranging assault — on everything from Romney's personal tax rate, his comments about "the 47%" and his work as a venture capitalist, to his policies on taxation, immigration, contraception and healthcare — were studded with specific details designed to portray the Republican challenger as an avatar of the wealthy.
"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 said.
He also linked Romney to the unpopular Republican Congress, something he had failed to do earlier. And the president pivoted repeatedly from his critique of Romney to signal that, unlike his GOP rival, he intended to look out for the middle class.
"When Gov. Romney stands here, after a year of campaigning, when during a Republican primary he stood on stage and said, 'I'm going to give you tax cuts' — he didn't say rate cuts, he said 'tax cuts to everybody,' including the top 1% — you should believe him, because that's been his history," Obama said. "And that's exactly the kind of top-down economics that is not going to work if we want a strong middle class and an economy that is striving for everybody."
But when Obama returned to an earlier theme of his campaign attack ads, outlining what he described as Romney's efforts to profit from investments in companies that export U.S. jobs to China and other countries, Romney challenged Obama's own investments.
"Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney asked three times.
Obama replied that he hadn't because it wasn't as large as Romney's, prompting the GOP nominee to respond: "You also have investments in Chinese companies. You also have investments outside the United States. You also have investments through a Cayman's trust, all right?" Obama did not respond before Crowley turned the discussion back to immigration.
At times, Romney revived a tendency, which surfaced during the GOP primary debates, of complaining about the debate rules not being enforced. The moderator had to wrestle both men, but especially Romney, for control.
The debate, held at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island, was politics in the round. The candidates shared an intimate, red-carpeted stage in the school's sports arena with 82 local voters seated on semicircular risers. Crowley, the moderator, chose the questions, in advance, from written submissions by the voters, who were selected by the Gallup polling organization from surrounding Nassau County, a close suburb of New York City.
Televised debates have been unusually important throughout the 2012 contest. During the Republican nomination battle, strong debate performances propelled a changing cast of GOP candidates into the lead. Others fell from contention after stumbling in multi-candidate forums. Romney's commanding performance in his first meeting with Obama two weeks ago reenergized his flagging campaign, and he has continued to make progress in head-to-head polling matchups against the president.
In a landmark for the fall campaign, Romney reached 50% Tuesday for the first time in Gallup's national preference poll of likely voters. Obama was at 46%.
The two men will meet in a final debate next Monday in Florida, which has more electoral votes than any other swing state.
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.