President Obama Comes to Play in Feisty Debate

Both candidates perform strongly in a tense, more emotional presidential debate than the first one.

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A spirited and forceful President Obama showed up for his second debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney Tuesday night, trading accusations and barbs with his opponent and giving a better account of himself than he did in his lackluster first debate two weeks ago.

[PHOTOS: Obama, Romney Battle in Town Hall Debate]

Both candidates delivered strong performances and argued their cases with conviction and emotion. They set the tone with the first question, posed by 20-year-old college student Jeremy Epstein who wanted to know how the candidates would make sure he could get a job after he graduates. Romney addressed the student by his first name, and said he would do what was necessary to create jobs for everyone. He later mentioned his five-point economic plan that includes tax breaks for small business to encourage job creation, increasing energy development in North America, promoting education, and expanding trade. He said Obama, based on his record so far, offered "more debt, and less jobs."

For his part, Obama told "Jeremy" that "Your future is bright" and underscored his own five-point plan to create jobs, including middle-class tax cuts and investing in infrastructure, manufacturing, and education. He said the economy has turned the corner from near-collapse to a gradual recovery. And he said jobs are gradually being created in the private sector.

Within the first 15 minutes, Romney and Obama engaged in one of the most memorable moments of the debate. Both men stood up from their stools, walked to within three feet of each other, and began to talk simultaneously, face to face, before moderator Candy Crowley of CNN managed to persuade them to back off.

[READ: Who Won the Town Hall Debate? Twitter Reacts]

Neither candidate wanted to give the other any advantage. They often wandered the stage at the same time, gesturing and talking as the moderator attempted to settle them down.

At one point, during a discussion of how they would increase energy production, Obama began to speak before Romney was finished, and Romney said tersely, "You'll get your chance in a moment." After that, Obama returned to his seat and waited calmly for Romney to have his say. Then the president got up and argued that Romney was wrong in his energy prescriptions and his overall economic policies, which Obama said would result in tax cuts for the rich, not the middle class. Obama said Romney really has a "one-point plan" for the economy--"make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."

Obama said Romney would only repeat the mistakes made by the Republican administration of George W. Bush. "With his policies we might be back in that mess," Obama said. And Obama repeatedly argued that what Romney was saying "wasn't true."

Romney said his economic plan would lower tax rates for everyone and reduce a host of tax breaks to compensate for lost revenue from the tax cuts. Romney also said there would be no taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains for people earning less than $200,000 a year. But he said, "I will not under any circumstances increase taxes on the middle class" and he wouldn't lower taxes on the rich. He added that "the top 5 per cent" will continue to pay what they pay today under his plan.

[READ: Obama, Romney Spar in First Debate]

Obama said he would give middle-class people tax relief and added that he has already cut taxes on middle-income families by $3,600. Obama said Romney makes $20 million a year but pays a tax rate of 14 per cent, lower than waitresses and truck drivers, and that isn't fair. "We just have a different theory," Obama said, arguing that Romney favors "top-down economics." Obama also said Romney really "can't tell you" how he would pay for his tax cuts.

Romney repeatedly called attention to Obama's record, and said, "The middle class is getting crushed." Attempting to appeal to women, a key group of swing voters in the battleground states, he added that 3.5 million more women are living in poverty today compared with four years ago. He also said women have lost 580,000 jobs over the course of the Obama administration.

Obama said he would work to insure pay equity and reduce gender discrimination in the workplace. And he said his administration is on record supporting efforts to make sure women get contraception from their insurance companies, while he said Romney wants to eliminate federal funds for Planned Parenthood, on which women rely for basic health services, not just birth control. "These are not just women's issues, these are family issues; these are economic issues," Obama said.

Romney was asked by undecided voter Susan Katz how his economic policies would differ from the policies of President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor. Romney said he wouldn't hike the deficit as Bush did and he would pursue more trade agreements than Bush did. For his part, Obama said Romney "has gone to a more extreme place" on social policy than Bush.

At the end of the debate, Obama said he found it "offensive" that Romney would question his commitment to the safety of Americans in the Middle East because four Americans were killed in Libya in the past few weeks, including a U.S. ambassador.

The 90-minute encounter, held at Hofstra University on Long Island, was held as a town hall meeting, with questions coming from the audience of about 80 swing voters selected by the Gallup polling organization.

The third and final debate is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington, for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.