President Barack Obama climbed back into the race for the White House yesterday and did not hold his punches in a bad-tempered debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney which could prove critical for the outcome of the election.
In a markedly aggressive performance compared with his first dismal debate with Romney two weeks ago, the President hammered the former Massachusetts Governor on issues ranging from immigration policy and tax cuts to Libya. But the challenger also put in a strong performance, attacking the Administration's record on job creation as he reworked his campaign talking points.
The audience at Hofstra University outside New York, which had been asked not to applaud, ignored that instruction and broke into loud clapping twice as the pair sparred over the Administration's clumsy handling of the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The ambassador and three other Americans were left dead in the attack, which was originally described as spontaneous by Administration officials.
Obama, in a display of barely controlled anger, reacted strongly to Romney's accusation he was fundraising in Las Vegas after the terrorist attack. "The suggestion that anybody in my team ... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That's not what we do," he shot back.
It was the one moment of the wide-ranging debate where Romney appeared to be flailing. Earlier, he rudely put the President in his place by snapping, "You'll get your chance in a moment, I'm still speaking," in an exchange about energy production.
The rematch was substantively different from the earlier debate because its town hall format allowed questioners from among 82 undecided voters to pose questions directly to the candidates, via moderator Candy Crowley of CNN. The last question gave Obama and Romney the opportunity to correct "the biggest misperception" about themselves, which enabled the Republican nominee to counter the impression he only cared about the "1 per cent" of Americans and to address his Mormon faith. Obama, for his part, denied that his Administration was only about big government.
During the 90-minute session, Obama landed punches where Romney is most vulnerable. He referred obliquely to the former Governor's record of policy flip-flops, saying "what I've tried to do is be consistent".
But the President also criticised Romney's outsourcing of jobs when CEO of Bain Capital and noted his low personal income tax rate. His parting shot was a vow to "fight for" the 47 per cent of the population, famously described as a lost cause by Romney on the ground that they are on government handouts and consider themselves victims. As it was in his final statement, Romney could not respond.
The former Governor, who has enjoyed a bounce in the polls since the first debate, closing the gap in many swing states, stressed that "we can't afford another four years like the last four years". Persistently criticising the President's economic record, Romney said he wanted to help the middle class who had been "buried" in the past four years.
Obama was challenged by a black voter who asked, "What have you done to earn my vote in 2012?" The President came back with a list which included reining in Wall St and saving a motor industry on the brink of collapse.
Romney was asked by one woman how his policies would be different from George W. Bush's. Romney responded: "My priority is jobs" and that Bush "had a different path for a very different time".
The polls in coming days, before the last presidential debate on Tuesday, will show if Obama has stemmed the bleeding towards Romney in the battleground states.
Although the incumbent still leads in the swing state of Ohio, some pundits are predicting an electoral college tie on November 7.