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Government, Politics & Issues

Obama, Romney clash in combative town hall debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2012 - A feisty, engaged President Barack Obama clashed often with his combative GOP opponent Mitt Romney during Tuesday night’s lively town hall debate on issues ranging from the economy to immigration to Libya.

The 90-minute encounter presented a stark contrast to their first debate, during which a more passive Obama had failed to challenge some of Romney’s assertions. On Tuesday, Obama sought to control the discussion, often confronting Romney on issues such as the auto bailout, taxes and China outsourcing.

For his part, Romney pressed Obama hard for failing to live up to promises the president had made four years ago in areas such as jobs and the federal deficit. Romney also responded to Obama’s contention that his math did not add up, by aggressively defending his tax proposals and promising they would not add to the national deficit.

The fast-moving debate at Hofstra University in suburban New York, moderated by CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley, sent fact-checkers scurrying for answers on several issues. Those included Romney’s assertions about a decline in oil production on public lands (technically, production rose) and his statement that Obama had not used the phrase "act of terror" in his Rose Garden speech the day after the attack on the Libyan consulate that killed the U.S. ambassador and three others. (Obama did use the phrase “acts of terror” in a generic sense, as fact-checkers later pointed out). 

The clash over the administration’s response to the Libya attack – during which Romney accused Obama of misleading the American public about the terrorist nature of the attack and failing to provide adequate consulate security -- led an apparently angry Obama to respond:

“The suggestion that anybody on my team ... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own is offensive.”

After the debate, four instant polls indicated that viewers thought Obama had won the debate -- although some of the margins were slim. A CNN/ORC poll found that 46 percent thought Obama won the debate, while 39 percent credited Romney with a win. Several commentators and debate experts praised Obama for a strong performance that may have blunted some of Romney’s political momentum after the Denver debate.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Obama was “more focused, more engaged, and he much more frequently challenged Romney’s claims,” at times shifting “some of Romney's points against him.”

However, Robertson credited Romney with being “very disciplined” in a way that “hammered home many of the points he made in the first debate.” He said the president “did not make a strong case that he’s the candidate to change the path of the frustrating sluggish economic recovery.”

From immigration to energy to women

Among the major areas of contention were immigration, energy, economics, women's issues and the Libya attack.

Romney accused Obama of failing to reform the broken immigration system during his first term, but the president countered that Republicans in Congress were unwilling to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Romney said illegal immigration must be blocked and said he would "not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally." However, he said he wants to create a path to "permanent residence" – perhaps involving military service – to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Obama dismissed that comment as a change in position, asserting that Romney has opposed the DREAM Act, a bill rejected by congressional Republicans that would have provided a path to legal status for many young illegal immigrants.

Women's issues also played a significant role in the debate, with the candidates tangling over women's health issues and pay equity -- issues that have taken a higher profile this election season, largely because of what most polls have shown to be Obama's edge among women voters.

Obama emphasized that the first measure he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act to make it easier for women to sue over perceived pay inequities, while Romney cited his effort as governor to put more women in key positions within his administration.

Obama lashed out at Romney's campaign comments that he would bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funding for health services it provides, including contraception and screenings for breast and cervical cancer.

While Romney didn't reply to the Planned Parenthood jabs, he said he believed that "all women should have access to contraceptives." He said it should not be up to insurers or employers as to whether women obtain them.

Obama emphasized that Romney has previously said he opposed the free contraceptive coverage allowed in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Romney has said he will act quickly, if elected president, to repeal the ACA and replace it with something else.

According to at least one post-debate survey, the encounter didn't help Romney appeal to women voters. The Lake Research Partners Poll reported that women participants favored Obama's debate performance by a 22-point margin, while men also gave the president an edge, but only by six points.

Coming on strong

Both candidates delivered passionate closing remarks in response to a questioner who asked them to correct misperceptions about them. In Romney's closing statement, he pledged to "get America working again. I will get us on track to a balanced budget. The president hasn't. I will."

"We don't have to settle for what we're going through," added Romney, citing gas prices, high unemployment, 47 million Americans on food stamps, and "50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work."

The “town hall” consisted of 82 uncommitted voters who sat in a semicircle around Crowley – the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in two decades – and the two candidates. Crowley at times had trouble holding the candidates to their time limits, but she made a strong effort to let about a dozen citizens to ask questions.

The format followed in a tradition of town-hall style presidential debates that began in 1992, when challenger Bill Clinton dominated.

Before the debate, both Obama and Romney did some last-minute cramming and ate hearty meals. Aides said Obama had a steak and potatoes dinner with his wife Michelle; Romney’s dinner with his family included rotisserie chicken, with side dishes of spinach and baked potato.

Whether their diets had anything to do with it, both candidates came on strong during the 90-minute debate.

“Obama seemed to enjoy this debate much more than his first, and seemed to enjoy engaging with the citizen questioners," said Mitchell S. McKinney, an associate professor of communications at the University of Missouri – Columbia who is an expert on presidential debates

"While Mitt Romney was still on task to attack Barack Obama, Romney was far less aggressive than he was in his first debate.”

McKinney said “both sides will claim victory tonight. The real ‘victory’ of this debate – who won or who lost – will be played out by the post-debate spinners and campaign operatives trying to convince journalists and others that momentum is own their side.

“Obama did what he needed to do to shore up his doubters – mostly from within his own party. Mitt Romney’s debate performance was strong enough for him to go forward with confidence in what seems to be a tied election.”

David Cole, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, praised Romney's performance, while acknowledging that Obama was more engaged than he had been two weeks ago.

“Tonight showed that while President Obama can change his debate strategy, he cannot change his record over the past four years,” Cole said in a statement. 

“Once again, Gov. Romney effectively contrasted the promises candidate Obama made on the campaign trail in 2008 with his failed record as president — and Romney made a clear and compelling case that he has the vision and the plan to lead America to a meaningful recovery with real jobs for middle-class families.”

But U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, applauded the president's performance, saying he displayed "passion, focus and a tremendous command of the facts."

"Tonight, President Obama had a real conversation with the American people that hit home with middle-class families," the congressman said.

Henry I. Schvey, a drama professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said in an interview that “Obama did much better – no question” than he had in the first debate. “He showed a level of passion and was much more animated.”

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