NEW YORK – US President Barack Obama launched aggressive attacks against Republican rival Mitt Romney on jobs, energy and Libya in their second debate on Tuesday as the Democrat tried to reclaim the momentum in a tight White House race.
Obama was much sharper and more energetic than in their opening debate two weeks ago, when his listless performance was heavily criticized and gave Romney's campaign a much-needed boost in the run-up to the Nov. 6 election.
Tuesday’s town hall-style presidential debate focused overwhelmingly on domestic and economic issues, but some of the sharpest exchanges came during the one question asked on the Middle East.
When a voter in the audience asked why requests for additional security for US staff in Libya had been denied, Republican Mitt Romney used the question to deliver a broadside against US President Barack Obama’s policy in the region.
“This calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East” Romney charged, referring to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya.
“Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt and now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel,” he continued. “We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb.”
Obama, for his part, focused on what happened in Libya. Asked about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement accepting blame for the situation, Obama said, “She works for me. I’m the president, and I’m always responsible.”
But he pushed back against Romney’s criticism that the president wasn’t forthcoming about the planned nature of the attack and that he shouldn’t have gone to Las Vegas for a fundraiser the next day.
“The suggestion that anybody on my team … would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”
Romney had disputed the administration’s description of the cause of the Libya attack as stemming from riots over an anti-Islam video made in the US.
"This was not a demonstration," Romney said in an attempt to attack the administration on what he claims is misinformation over whether or not the incident was a terrorist act. "This was an attack."
Obama responded that the day after the attack, "I stood in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror, and I said we were going to get those that were behind this."
Romney challenged that the president actually took 14 days to admit that the attack was a terrorist act, an allegation which was repudiated by the debate moderator Candy Crowley and by Obama.
According to the transcript of that Rose Garden speech, Obama said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
The phrasing has allowed both sides to claim that their candidate was correct, but many pundits considered Romney the clear loser in the exchange and saw it as a turning point in the debate.
Polls showed voters judged Obama the winner. A CNN survey gave him the edge by 46 percent to 39 percent, while CBS had Obama the winner by 37 percent to 30 percent.
The final debate, slated to focus entirely on foreign policy, will be held on Monday night.
Reuters contributed to this report.