The town meeting-style debate focused on both foreign and domestic policy and had ordinary Americans – 11 uncommitted voters chosen by Gallup – present questions to the candidates. Each had two minutes to respond; and an additional minute was given to moderator Candy Crowley – CNN's chief political correspondent – to facilitate a discussion.
- Poll: Romney takes lead among likely voters VP debate: Nuclear Iran worse than Mideast war
- First Obama-Romney debate draws 67M viewers
Both candidates came charging out of the gate on foreign and domestic policy issues, with Romney leveling criticism over what he called the administration's failures, and Obama countering by trying to debunk the Republican candidate's proposed policies.
Asked about the attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and what has already been called as a security failure on the US' part, Obama said that "The buck stops with me."
"Let me first of all talk about our diplomats, because they serve all around the world and do an incredible job in a very dangerous situation. And these aren’t just representatives of the United States, they are my representatives. I send them there, oftentimes into harm’s way," Obama said.
"As soon as we found out that the Benghazi consulate was being overrun… I gave them three instructions: Beef up our security and procedures, not just in Libya, but at every embassy and consulate in the region; investigate exactly what happened, regardless of where the facts lead us, to make sure folks are held accountable and it doesn’t happen again.
"And number three, we are going to find out who did this and we’re going to hunt them down, because one of the things that I’ve said throughout my presidency is when folks mess with Americans, we go after them," he stated.
Charging out of the gate (Photo: Reuters)
He further criticized Romney's initial reaction to the attack: "While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that’s not how a commander in chief operates. You don’t turn national security into a political issue.
"Not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I’ve made. But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. When I say that we are going to find out exactly what happened, everybody will be held accountable. And I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home. You know that I mean what I say."
Romney countered: "I think the president just said correctly that the buck does stop at his desk and that he takes responsibility for that, for the failure in providing those security resources.
"There were other issues associated with this tragedy. There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.
"It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people… But I find more troubling than this, that on the day following the assassination of the United States ambassador – the first time that’s happened since 1979 – when we have four Americans killed there, when apparently we didn’t know what happened, that the president, the day after that happened, flies to Las Vegas for a political fund-raiser," he said.
"(…) And this calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East. Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel, the president said that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel.
"We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb. Syria – Syria’s not just a tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic – strategically significant player for America," Romney stated.
"The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes."
The first several questions focused on the US economy, which is still reeling from the 2009 global financial crisis.
Obama and Romney disagreed over the economy, with the president aggressively slamming the Republican's economic plan: "Governor Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan – he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
Romney accused his rival of overseeing a stagnant economy. "The middle class has been crushed over the last four years and jobs have been too scarce," the former Massachusetts governor said. "I know what it takes to get this economy going… I know what it takes to create good jobs again," he stressed.
Obama and Romney (Photo: AP)
Obama then elaborated on his economic vision: "Number one, I want to build manufacturing jobs in this country again. Number two, we've got to make sure that we have the best education system in the world.
"Number three, we've got to control our own energy... (and) we've got to make sure we're building the energy source of the future, not just thinking about next year. We've got to reduce our deficit, but we've got to do it in a balanced way.
"And let's take the money that we've been spending on war over the last decade to rebuild America."
Romney added that he "wants to simplify the tax code, and I want to get middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes."
On the issue of immigration, Romney said that he wants to simplify immigration laws. Obama stated that the US needs to "fix the broken immigration system," and streamline the process.
The Democrats are hoping the president will be able to both regain the voters' favor as well as stop Romney in his tracks; while the Republicans hope that the GOP's nominee will be able to widen the gap even further. Polls taken immediately after the debate showed that 47% of voters favored Obama.
Neither Obama nor Romney have been able to solidify a lead in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
With the elections just three weeks away, both parties know that high-stakes debate may very well pave the winning candidate's way to the White House, as the losing candidate will have little time for damage control.
Obama and Romney will face off for their third and final debate on October 22, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Sharon Gilad contributed to this report
- Receive Ynetnews updates
directly to your desktop