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Obama handed victory over Romney in 2nd presidential debate

Watch debate: Barack Obama came back 'guns blazing' in the second US presidential debate with an assertive performance in a showdown that on several occasions almost brought the two candidates toe-to-toe.

US President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate. Reuters / Lucas Jackson
US President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate. Reuters / Lucas Jackson

WASHINGTON // It was like night and day.

Struggling to contain Mitt Romney’s momentum and losing ground in the polls to the Republican presidential nominee, Barack Obama, the incumbent US president, needed a commanding performance in last night’s second presidential debate to check a re-election campaign that seemed to be running out of steam.

He gave it. This was an assertive performance in a fractious town hall style debate that on several occasions almost brought the two candidates toe-to-toe.

A snap CNN poll after the debate found that most viewers – 46 to 39 percent – handed Mr Obama victory. That was by a smaller margin than they handed Mr Romney victory in the first debate. But the numbers only tell part of the story.

This was a different president to the one who stumbled two weeks ago in Colorado, who lacked the ammunition to answer a Republican opponent coming out all guns blazing.

Mr Romney again questioned the president’s record in a debate that was dominated by domestic issues. But this time, in front of an audience of 82 undecided voters at New York’s Hofstra University, Mr Obama at least had answers.

Mr Romney accused the Obama administration of misleading Americans over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the evening’s only foreign policy question. Mr Obama countered that it was an “offensive” accusation, one of several moments where the two almost physically squared up. No one in his administration would “play politics” with the lives of Americans, Mr Obama said, drawing a stark distinction with what he had just accused Mr Romney of doing over the same issue.

When Mr Romney accused Mr Obama’s administration of decreasing domestic US oil production, he rejected the assertion. Instead, he shot back, “very little of what Mr Romney said [on energy] was true”.

And on taxes and America’s budget deficit, Mr Obama did what he didn’t do last time; he challenged Mr Romney on detail. When Mr Romney said the “maths does add up” on his tax reduction proposals, citing his experience of balancing budgets in the private sector, as head of the winter Olympics and as a state governor, Mr Obama didn’t let it go.

“We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics, beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, in terms of how he pays for that.”

Never mind that Mr Obama’s own plan to tackle America’s growing deficit is short of specifics: Mr Romney didn’t strike back. In fact, Mr Romney seemed more and more unsure of himself as the evening wore on, in stark contrast to the last debate.

Both candidates said they would promote equality for women in the workplace. But Mr Romney sparked an internet meme by claiming that he had explored ”binders full of women” to fill positions as governor of Massachusetts. He may also have raised an eyebrow by suggesting that in the economy he was creating, employers are “going to be so anxious to get good workers they’re going to be anxious to hire women”.

“I’ll get America working again,” Mr Romney concluded. “I will get us on track to a balanced budget. The president hasn’t. I’ll make sure we can reform Medicare and Social Security to preserve them for coming generations. The president said he would. He didn’t.”

But Mr Romney also tried to assure viewers that he “cared about 100 percent of Americans”, himself referencing infamous remarks he had made to a dinner of wealthy donors in May that was secretly taped and in which he described 47 percent Americans as welfare dependants.

Until that point, Mr Obama had not raised the issue himself. He did, though, in his closing remarks. Those were, he said the very people for whom he would fight.

“if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds.”

When he came out swinging in the first presidential debate on October 3, Mr Romney checked a seemingly inexorable slide in the polls. Yesterday, in fact, a Gallup/USA Today poll showed him pulling ahead of Mr Obama by 4 percent among likely voters in the crucial 12 battleground states.

Mr Obama will now hope that, three weeks before election day, his assertive performance in New York Tuesday night will have a similar effect on his campaign.