US President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on October 16, 2012. Obama and Romney face off in a town-hall style debate with undecided voters asking questions of the two candidates. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Hempstead, New York, Oct 16, 2012 (AFP) - A combative Barack Obama landed telling blows on challenger Mitt Romney Tuesday as naked dislike boiled over between the White House foes in a tense debate three weeks from election day.
President Obama bounced off the ropes after a dismal showing in their first encounter two weeks ago, knowing his tumbling poll numbers could doom him to the historical ignominy of a single term without a sharp intervention.
Early signs were that Obama's passion-fueled performance will revive optimism and enthusiasm among Democrats in his bid for a second term, though Romney, touting entrepreneurship, scored blows of his own on the economy.
In one spellbinding exchange, Obama stared directly at Romney and rebuked him over his criticism of his White House for its handling of an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11, which killed four Americans.
"The suggestion that anybody on my team, whether it's a secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive," Obama said wagging his finger at Romney across the stage of their town-hall debate.
"That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, not what I do as commander-in-chief," Obama said, in a fiery moment in one of the most ill-tempered and contentious White House debates ever.
Seeking to recover, Romney then seemed to stumble, accusing the president of taking days to call the attack, which killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, a "terror attack."
But Obama snapped back that he had indeed referred to the assault as "an act of terror," telling Romney : "check the transcript" before moments later fixing his rival with a withering stare and saying "Please proceed Governor."
CNN moderator Candy Crowley confirmed that Obama did in fact use the phrase "act of terror" in the White House Rose Garden the day after the attack.
The exact quote confirms that Obama did imply the assault was an act of terror, despite Republican claims he laid the blame fully on a anti-Muslim YouTube video made on US soil.
"No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," Obama said in the remarks on September 12.
Democrats seized on the moment to question Romney's credentials to serve as commander-in-chief even before the debate ended, while conservatives were hammering Crowley for what they said was an unfair intervention.
As anger crackled in the debate hall, the candidates were freed from podiums at Hofstra University, New York and roamed the floor, often encroaching on each other's personal space.
Minutes into the clash, Republican Romney and Democrat Obama stood just a few feet apart, trading charge and counter charge in a furious verbal slanging match over economic policy.
In another heated exchange over energy, Romney triggered an audible gasp of shock in the hall hosting the debate, when he told the president: "You'll get your chance in a moment, I'm still speaking."
"Not true, Governor Romney, not true," Obama said, after Romney savaged the president's record on oil production over the last four years.
Romney's strongest moments came when he delivered stinging indictments of the Obama economy, charging the president with miserably failing to restore speedy jobs growth and to cut ballooning deficits.
"The president wants to do well, I understand," Romney said, in a sorrowful tone of voice.
"But the policies he put in place have not let this economy take off as it could have."
Romney also furiously accused Obama over debt.
"We've gone from $10 trillion of national debt to $16 trillion of national debt. If the president were re-elected, we'd go to almost $20 trillion of national debt. This puts us on a road to Greece," he said, before also vowing to stand up to China over what he says are trade and currency abuses.
Obama hit back that Romney had invested in companies in China that were pioneers of outsourcing US jobs.
"Governor, you're the last person who's going to get tough on China."
When Romney tried to counter-attack, asking Obama if his pension scheme included investment in low wage economies abroad, the president openly mocked him.
"I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours. I don't check it that often."
Just 21 days before the election, the obvious antipathy between the candidates reflected stakes that could hardly be higher as national polls and the race in battleground states tightens into a dead heat.
At moments, Romney quibbled with Crowley, charging that Obama had interrupted him in contravention of the rules of the debate.
Romney, a 65-year-old former governor of Massachusetts, took the first question of the clash, about the jobs crisis, and bemoaned the plight of ordinary Americans who he said had been "crushed over the last four years."
"I know what it takes to create good jobs and to make sure you have the opportunity you deserve," Romney said.
Obama, 51, was quick off his stool in response, looking 20-year-old questioner Jeremy Epstein straight in the eye, fixing him with an intense stare as he promised to quicken the US economic recovery.
Supporters of both men were gathering at debate watching parties and another huge television audience was expected, though perhaps not so big as the 70 million that tuned into the first clash.
In one festive scene The Apollo, the legendary Harlem theater that helped launch the Jackson Five, Billie Holliday and James Brown, was packed with an excited crowd hoping to see the biggest political talent show on earth.
"President Obama has his own swagger. He needs to look in the mirror and rediscover his mojo," said Esther Armah, a radio host.