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Politics

Obama, Romney spar over economic issues, Libya attack in debate

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:48 PM
TAMPA -

A more engaged and combative President Barack Obama took on Mitt Romney in Tuesday night's second presidential debate.

Romney, however, maintained the polished and confident delivery he showed in their first encounter, refusing to back down as the two clashed on taxes, job creation and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Throughout the debate, Obama repeatedly accused Romney of switching positions on issues and simply not telling the truth.

"That just isn't true," he said, responding to assertions by Romney on oil drilling, immigration reform and the rescue of the auto industry.

Romney, in turn, pounded away on the idea that Obama's record doesn't support his promises and his rhetoric.

"The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven't put people back to work," he said.

Their dominant topic was the economy.

Obama maintained his position that while the economy still has problems, he has arrested the disastrous meltdown he inherited and begun moving the nation forward.

"We were losing 800,000 jobs a month when I started — we have been digging our way out" with 31 consecutive months of job growth, he said.

Romney said he can do better, repeatedly citing his business career and the nation's continued high unemployment.

"I spent my life in the private sector — I know why jobs come and why they go," he said.

As in the first debate, Obama contended that Romney's proposal to cut individual tax rates by 20 percent for all taxpayers, while making up lost revenue by ending deductions that affect only higher-income taxpayers, doesn't add up mathematically.

"When he's asked how are you going to do it, which deductions, which loopholes are you going to close, he can't tell you how he's going to do it. … We haven't heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood."

Romney responded that rather than eliminating deductions, he would allow a certain level of total deductions or exemptions, and taxpayers could "fill that bucket any way you can."

He repeated his promise that under no circumstances would he increase taxes for middle-income taxpayers or lower the share of taxes paid by higher-income people.

"Why do I want to bring rates down?" he said. "It makes it easier for small businesses to hire people and create jobs."

More than an hour passed before the first foreign policy question came up, about the administration's handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

The administration's vacillation on whether the attack was a spontaneous demonstration or a planned terrorist attack, plus revelations that consulate requests for increased security hadn't been granted, put Obama on the defensive.

Without directly answering the question about who declined the increased security, he said U.S. diplomats "are my personal representatives," and "Nobody's more concerned about their safety and security than I am."

"I'm the one that has to greet those coffins when they come home," he said. "We are going to find out who did this and we are going to hunt them down."

Romney simply noted that Obama "takes responsibility for the failure in providing those security resources."

Romney also questioned the administration's initial suggestion that it was a spontaneous demonstration, when it appears to have been a terrorist attack.

"It took a long time for that to be told to the American people," he said. "I think you have to ask yourself why didn't we know five days later."

Obama, however, appeared to score points on a question about workplace equality for women.

He described the problems of his own mother and grandmother with workplace fairness, and recounted his support for the Lilly Ledbetter Act. It lifted an obstacle preventing women from suing for being paid less than men for the same jobs.

Romney, he noted, declined to support the act.

Romney responded by pointing to a university study conducted when he was governor of Massachusetts, and said he would help women in the workplace because, "We're going to have employers in the new economy be so anxious to hire good workers they're going to hire women."

The debate occurred as Obama struggles to halt a Romney surge that began with Obama's poor performance in the Oct. 3 debate. That surge appears to have erased Obama's lead in national polls and reversed his narrow lead in Florida.

A Gallup tracking poll the day before the debate showed Romney up 4 percentage points nationally.

Recent Florida polls have varied, with Romney showing leads of 1 to 7 points; the Real Clear Politics website's average gives Romney a 2.5-point lead.

Romney also has cut into Obama's once-formidable Electoral College lead.

The Real Clear Politics electoral vote forecast has Obama leading with 201 votes to 191 for Romney, with 146 votes in tossup states. A candidate needs 270 votes to win. The tossups include Florida with 29 and Ohio with 18.

Huffington Post's Pollster compilation looks more favorable for Obama — 271 votes to Romney's 206, with 61 votes in tossup states, including Florida.

Obama's Florida campaign officials, however, say they're still confident they're in the running in the state.

Neither campaign is slacking off in Florida.

Romney running mate Paul Ryan will appear in Ocala and Fort Myers on Thursday, and in Daytona Beach on Friday.

Vice President Joe Biden will appear at Sun City Center on Friday then continue campaigning in the state Saturday. No details of Ryan's other stops were yet announced.

The third and final presidential debate is Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton.


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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