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Obama, Romney face off in head-to-head combat

| Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, 11:32 p.m.
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16:  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speak during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates will field questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images)
Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speak during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates will field questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as US President Barack Obama addresses the audience during the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York in a 90-minute town hall-style debate. Obama and Romney face off Tuesday in a make-or-break debate, vying for command of the presidential race just three weeks from election day. AFP PHOTO / POOLPOOL/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney smiles as US President Barack Obama addresses the audience during the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York in a 90-minute town hall-style debate. Obama and Romney face off Tuesday in a make-or-break debate, vying for command of the presidential race just three weeks from election day. AFP PHOTO / POOLPOOL/AFP/Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16:  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates fielded questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates fielded questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney argue during the second presidential debate, the only held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney argue during the second presidential debate, the only held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16:  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) answers a question as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates fielded questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images)
Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - OCTOBER 16: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) answers a question as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. During the second of three presidential debates, the candidates fielded questions from audience members on a wide variety of issues. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the second presidential debate, the only held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley.  AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participate in the second presidential debate, the only held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In a lively face-off Tuesday night, the two major party candidates for president sparred over taxes, energy production and the death of a U.S. ambassador.

President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, allowed to roam the stage with wireless microphones at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., frequently challenged each other during the second of three presidential debates. CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley moderated the town hall-style debate, in which the questions came from some of the 82 uncommitted voters in the room rather than the moderator.

One of the sharpest exchanges came over the death of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed when militants overran the consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, criticized Obama for leaving Washington the following day to attend a fundraiser in Las Vegas and campaign the day after that in Colorado. Obama shot back that Romney issued a press release trying to take political advantage of the attack that night.

“That's not how a commander in chief operates. You don't turn national security into a political issue,” Obama said.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she was responsible for decisions that left the consulate without enough security to repel the attack. Obama on Tuesday said, “I am ultimately responsible for what's taken place there.”

Romney also took issue with the administration's statements early on that the attack appeared to be an outgrowth of protests over a video that insulted Islam.

“There was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack… This calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East,” Romney said. He added that the administration was either misleading people or didn't know what it was talking about.

“The suggestion that anybody on my team would play politics or mislead … when we've lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president. That's not what I do as commander in chief,” Obama said.

The first debate, on Oct. 3, Romney's strong performance and Obama's lackluster responses helped Romney end a monthlong string of bad news and missteps that contributed to a long slide in the polls, particularly in key swing states.

Since the debate, Romney has overtaken Obama in Gallup's daily tracking poll of likely voters nationwide, and closed the gap in several battleground states, including Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

“The president stood tall and stood up to Romney and his statements,” said former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bucks County. That could help Obama make gains with undecided voters, and energize partisans demoralized after the last debate, Murphy said. “He showed them competence, and that was what he needed to do.”

Obama was more “aggressive and prepared” than in the first debate, “but he was unable to defend the big picture because it's so grim,” said Brad Todd, a Washington-based Republican strategist.

“Gov. Romney proved for the second debate in a row that he is sharp on his feet and more than prepared to be president,” Todd said. “That's the central challenge of debates for a challenger and he came through it with flying colors.”

The two stood face to face during an exchange on energy policy, when Romney challenged Obama, saying oil drilling permits on federal lands fell in the last four years. Obama rose from his chair and said that wasn't true, Romney continued asking him, “how much did you cut them by,” as Obama said overall oil production had increased.

Romney said the test for an oil policy is whether gas prices are lower now than they were before the plan was implemented. They were about $1.90 a gallon when Obama took office and are about $3.77 now. Obama said the reason prices were so low then was because the economy was on the brink of collapse.

One undecided voter asked Romney to differentiate himself from Obama's predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, which has been a main point of attack from Obama's campaign.

“I'll crack down on China. President Bush didn't,” Romney said, adding that he'd also sign more free trade agreements. “I'm going to get us to a balanced budget. President Bush didn't.”

Obama criticized investments made when Romney ran Bain Capital, an investment firm, which Obama said included companies that helped outsource jobs to China.

“Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China,” Obama said.

“As far as town hall debates go, it had its share of fireworks,” said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College. “Usually, this format focuses much more on the audience and their concerns. Tuesday night, though, much of the time was spent on direct arguments between the candidates themselves.”

Obama plans to campaign at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, and Ohio University in Athens. Romney is scheduled to campaign in Virginia, at Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake and then at Ida Park in Leesburg.

The final debate is scheduled to take place Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Mike Wereschagin and Salena Zito are a staff writers for Trib Total Media. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com. Zito can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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