Hempstead, New York: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stood toe-to-toe and harangued one another for telling lies on Tuesday, as naked dislike flared between the two rivals in a fiery presidential debate.
A pumped-up Obama bounced off the ropes after a dismal showing in the rivals' first clash two weeks ago, showing more passion and energy in the first few exchanges than in the whole sleepy 90 minutes of their debut clash.
Obama was shocked into action by tumbling poll numbers triggered by Romney's smooth performance in the first debate, which left panicking Democrats fearing his historic presidency could end in ignominy after a single term.
Freed from podiums that constrained them in the first debate, the candidates roamed the stage in the town-hall style encounter at Hofstra University, New York, exactly three weeks from election day on November 6.
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.
"Governor Romney says he has a five-point plan. He doesn't have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan, and that is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules," Obama blasted about his challenger's economic policy.
In one heated exchange over energy, Romney triggered an audible gasp of shock in the hall hosting the debate, when he snapped at 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.
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 CNN moderator Candy 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.
He rapped Romney for opposing the auto industry bailout which he engineered and which he said had saved a million jobs, and brushed off his Republican rival's denials.
"What Governor Romney said just isn't true. He wanted to make them into bankruptcy without providing them any way to stay open," Obama said.
Obama's team had promised a "strong" and "passionate" performance by the president after his lifeless showing in the first debate in Denver, revived Romney's campaign, which many Republicans thought was doomed to defeat.
Democrats were severely rattled by Obama's no show, so his first mission Tuesday was to reboot enthusiasm among his core supporters, with early voting already under way in a clutch of states ahead of election day on November 6.
The town hall setting, which had each candidate seated at a stool on a red carpet, and free to roam around, tested the body language of the two candidates, and capacity to empathize with the anxieties of everyday Americans.
Before the debate, Obama dined with his wife Michelle on steak and potatoes, while Romney ate a dinner of rotisserie chicken, with sides of spinach and baked potato, with his wife Ann and five sons.
Team Romney has had Obama on the ropes, and his campaign signaled confidence by predicting that the Republican would triumph in the key state of Ohio and nationwide.
"Our campaign clearly has the momentum heading into these last few weeks, as evidenced by steady movement in the polls toward governor Romney, and increased enthusiasm on the ground at our events," senior aide Rich Beeson said.
Recent polls in the crucial Midwestern battleground state, which no Republican has lost and gone on to win the White House, show Romney steadily eroding the president's narrow lead there.
Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters here that Obama retained multiple routes to get to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency and dismissed the Romney campaign's confidence in Ohio.
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 at 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.
Story first published:
October 17, 2012 07:01 IST