HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - (AP) - An aggressive President Barack Obama ripped into Mitt Romney's economic blueprint in a town hall style debate Tuesday night, accusing his rival of favoring only a "one-point plan" to help the rich at the expense of the nation's middle class. The Republican protested the charge was way off the mark.
The truth, Romney said, is that "the middle class has been crushed over the last four years." It was the first of repeated highly charged moments of the 90-minute debate, the second of three between the two men precisely three weeks before Election Day in a close race for the White House.
The president was feistier from the outset than he had been in their initial encounter, where he turned in a listless performance that sent shudders through his supporters and helped fuel a rise by Romney in opinion polls nationally and in some battleground states.
Obama challenged Romney on economics and energy policy, accusing him of switching positions and declaring that his economic plan was a "sketchy deal" that the public should reject.
Romney gave as good as he got.
"You'll get your chance in a moment. I'm still speaking," the former Massachusetts governor said at one point while Obama was mid-sentence.
The open-stage format, with no physical objects between them, placed incumbent and challenger face to face and, when they chose, directly in each other's faces. Their physical encounters crackled with energy and tension, and the crowd watched raptly as the two sparred while struggling to appear calm and affable before a national television audience.
The rivals disagreed about taxes, measures to reduce the deficit, energy, pay equity for women and health care issues - all in less than the first half of the 90-minute debate at Hofstra University.
One intense exchange focused on competing claims about whether energy production is increasing or slowing. Obama accused Romney of misrepresenting what has happened - a theme he returned to time and again. Romney strode across the stage to confront Obama face to face, just feet from the audience.
Both men pledged a better economic future to a young man who asked the first question, a member of a pre-selected audience of 82 uncommitted voters.
Then the president's determination to show a more aggressive side became evident.
Rebutting his rival's claim to a five-point plan to create 12 million jobs, Obama said, "Gov. Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Gov. 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."
"That's been his philosophy in the private sector," Obama said of his rival. "That's been his philosophy as governor. That's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate. You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less."
"You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a country, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions and you still make money. That's exactly the philosophy that we've seen in place for the last decade," the president said in a scorching summation.
Unable to respond at length because of the debate's rules, Romney said the accusations were "way off the mark."
But moments later, he reminded the national television audience of the nation's painfully slow recovery from the worst recession in decades.
There are "23 million people struggling to find a job. ... The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven't put America back to work," he said. "We have fewer people working today than when he took office."
Economic growth has been slow throughout Obama's term in office, and unemployment only recently dipped below 8 percent for the first time since he moved into the White House. Romney noted that if out-of-work Americans who no longer look for jobs were counted, the unemployment rate would be 10.7 percent.
Both men had rehearsed extensively for the encounter, a turnabout for Obama.
"I had a bad night," the president conceded, days after he and Romney shared a stage for the first time, in Denver. His aides made it known he didn't intend to be as deferential to his challenger this time, and the presidential party decamped for a resort in Williamsburg, Va., for rehearsals that consumed the better part of three days.
Romney rehearsed in Massachusetts and again after arriving on Long Island on debate day, with less to make up for.
"The first debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," his wife, Ann, said before joining her husband in New York.
Asked Tuesday night by one member of the audience how he would differ from former President George W. Bush, the last Republican to hold the office, Romney said, "We are different people and these are different times."
He said he would attempt to balance the budget, something Bush was unsuccessful in doing, get tougher on China and work more aggressively to expand trade.
Obama jumped in with his own predictions - not nearly as favorable to the man a few feet away on stage. He said the former president didn't attempt to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood or turn Medicare into a voucher system.
Though the questions were from undecided voters inside the hall - in a deeply Democratic state - the audience that mattered most watched on television and was counted in the tens of millions. Crucially important: viewers in the nine battlegrounds where the race is likely to be settled.
The final debate, next Monday in Florida, will be devoted to foreign policy.