President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Gov. Mitt Romney clashed Tuesday at Hofstra University in what was the second of three debates before the polls open on Nov. 6.
In contrast to the first square-off between the candidates two weeks ago in Colorado—in which Romney was widely viewed as the winner—this debate was town hall-style, whereby candidates fielded questions from a pre-determined pool of undecided voters.
CNN’s Candy Crowley moderated questions from Long Islanders on topics ranging from gun control, immigration, gas prices, student loans, pay equality and how public perception of the candidates squares with reality. While the opponents jabbed each other on the red carpet, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the debate hall on Hempstead Turnpike.
“I know what it takes to get this economy going,” Romney said in response to Jeremy Epstein, a 20-year-old college student who asked the opening question about jobs. “I know what it takes to create good jobs again.”
Obama used the question to tout his accomplishments over the last four years.
“What I want to do is build on the five million jobs that we’ve created over the last 30 months in the private sector alone,” he said.
Crowley was barely finished with the follow-up question when the candidates first started taking direct jabs at one another. It was a trend that continued throughout the roughly hour-and-a-half debate, from economic policy and college education to health care, and even the size of each other’s retirement plans.
“Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?” asked Romney, attempting to clarify outside investments included in his “blind trust,” which included some “in Chinese companies.”
“I don’t look at my pension,” smiled Obama. “It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.”
Who emerged as the hands-down winner, at least in the “Spin Alley” that sprung up in Hofstra’s media center minutes before the debate even ended, was split along party lines.
Democrats resoundingly declared a decisive victory.
“I think it was a great night for the president,” Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod told the Press. “It was a dominant performance.” He thought the president was “most effective in laying out his economic vision on where we need to go.”
“I think he was strong,” added Axelrod. “I think he was passionate.” He described Romney’s performance as “defensive.”
Jon Cooper, former Democratic Suffolk County legislator and longtime Obama supporter, who was present in the audience, echoed that sentiment.
“I was surrounded by Republicans, including some top Republicans,” he said. “And they were all dejected by the time they left. They were trying to reassure each other that he wasn’t that bad, that he did okay, didn’t he, as opposed to the Democrats, who were all high-fiving each other.”
Romney’s campaign, on the other hand, declared him the winner of the debate.
Said Congressman Pete King (R-Seaford): “I think Romney did outstanding… President Obama was more energized than he was the last time, but clearly, Governor Romney won.”
Hofstra students who watched the sparks fly on a jumbo television screen in the campus Student Center were equally divided.
Andre Fields, a 25-year-old political science graduate student, was impressed by Obama’s performance this time around, saying he “came out strong” and successfully contrasted himself from his opponent.
Freshman Ashley Haynes, 18, also a political science major, thought the president’s “more aggressive” stance won the night.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Gries, a freshman physics major, wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t think there was a clear winner,” he said outside the viewing room shortly afterwards.
Still, he said he’ll be voting for Romney.