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Town hall format leads to close-quarter exchanges

Obama, Romney trade barbs at town hall debate

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Story highlights

  • Barack Obama pulled few punches against Mitt Romney and attacked him from the outset
  • Many of Romney's answers aimed to indict Obama as a failed leader
  • Candy Crowley: "I think they were both incredibly intense, they both came to play"

With time running out and the final debate next week on foreign policy, Tuesday night's showdown was the last best chance for President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win on the major issue of the campaign -- the economy.

The contentious debate in New York featured pointed personal and political attacks by both men standing within arm's length of each other.

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Obama demonstrated two things -- he wants to keep his job and he listened to critics who panned him for being disengaged at their first debate two weeks ago. In Round Two, the president pulled few punches and attacked Romney from the start.

Romney again showed he wasn't afraid to directly question and argue with the president. On issues from the sluggish economy to the deadly September 11 terror attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, many of Romney's answers aimed to indict Obama as a failed leader.

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"Sitting on that stage, I didn't feel like it was personal animosity, I felt like the calendar was closing in on these guys," said CNN's Candy Crowley, the debate moderator. "I think they were both incredibly intense, they both came to play."

At times, the town hall format at Hofstra University led to a good deal of confrontation and pressure.

During the first presidential debate in Denver, Obama was criticized for looking down too often and not looking at Romney while he talked. In the town hall debate, Obama engaged Romney, the audience and the moderator more frequently.

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Pundits had speculated the town hall format would make it hard for the candidates to go after each other. Conventional wisdom held that it was it is difficult to relate to American voters and attack each other at the same time.

The ability for Romney and Obama to walk around the stage and interact with each other made for more direct confrontation.

While one was finishing an answer, the other would rise from his stool, ready for the next question. The interaction between two men who for months have regularly attacked each other from the stump, produced some testy moments.

Analysis: Romney whiffs on some easy pitches

No point illustrated this more clearly then the exchange over the Obama administration's record on opening public lands for oil exploration.

"Governor, we have actually produced more oil ..." said Obama in response to a question from Romney. He was quickly, however, cut off by Romney -- "No, how much did you cut licenses and permits on federal land and federal waters?"

Obama again began to answer, "Governor Romney, here is what we did: We had a whole bunch of oil companies," said the president, before Romney jumped in again -- "The question is how much did you cut them by?" the former Massachusetts governor asked.

Following Obama's answer, Romney got his turn to speak.

"I don't think anyone really believes that you are a person who is going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal," Romney said.

Obama, then, rose from his chair.

"You will get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking," Romney said, with his finger in the air directed at Obama.

There were similar confrontations on investments in China, questions about the Libya attack, and in one particularly memorable moment -- the type of investments in each candidate's pension fund.

Obama on Libya attack: 'I am always responsible'

During the debate, Obama contested "that Governor Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China."

The claim has been made previously against Romney's pension fund, so in response, Romney questioned Obama's own retirement account.

What transpired was an extended amount of cross talk, where Obama and Romney repeatedly tried to out talk each other.

"Mr. President, I'm still speaking. ... Mr. President, let me finish. ... I've got to continue," Romney said.

Romney then asked if the president looked at his own pension fund - a set up question that allowed the Republican challenger to contend that the president, too, has invested in Chinese companies.

"Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?" Romney asked.

"I don't look at my pension," Obama responded. "It's not as big as yours so it doesn't take as long."

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To many Democrats, Obama was missing that fire in the first debate. Because of that performance, the president acknowledged coming into Tuesday that he would have to be more aggressive.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the man who played Romney in debate prep, said Obama could have been more confrontational.

"The president could have been more aggressive tonight given some of the things that Mitt Romney said," Kerry told CNN's Jessica Yellin. "He held back on a few occasions."

Republicans acknowledged the president's change in style in the second debate.

"We all knew the president would be more aggressive tonight. The president said he was going to be and I think his base probably appreciated that," Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio told CNN's Jim Acosta. "I don't think the undecided voter in Ohio thought it was very effective, but the president was on the attack."

Read a transcript of the debate or watch it on CNN.com