HEMPSTEAD – President Obama came out swinging Tuesday night in the second presidential campaign debate, striking immediately at Republican Mitt Romney’s opposition to the Democrat’s handling of the auto industry rescue.
Obama was seen as having missed opportunities to make gains in the first debate with Romney two weeks ago. Romney was viewed as having won the debate. The president also said Romney’s plan was to let the oil companies write the energy policies.
At least twice in Tuesday’s debate at Hofstra University, Obama accused Romney of being untruthful. And he addressed Romney directly, unlike their first debate in Denver, when Obama primarily addressed the moderator, while Romney criticized the president.
Meanwhile, Romney, continuing his post-first debate surge, closed to within 4 percentage points of Obama among likely voters in Pennsylvania, narrowing a 12-point gap less than a month ago.
The Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters conducted Thursday through Sunday gave Obama a 50 percent to 46 percent advantage, compared with his 54 percent to 42 percent lead in the Sept. 18-24 survey before the two men had their first debate Oct. 3.
Romney is “coming on strong in the Keystone State,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute in Hamden, Conn.
The Republican candidate also opened up a 4-point national lead over Obama among likely voters, 50 percent to 46 percent, in the Gallup tracking poll covering the period Oct. 9 through Monday. That’s his largest lead in the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
The Pennsylvania results released Tuesday are similar to Quinnipiac polls conducted with CBS News and the New York Times in Colorado and Wisconsin, which showed gains for Romney in those swing states, albeit not as dramatic as in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, Obama led among likely women voters, 57 percent to 39 percent, while Romney held the advantage among men, 54 percent to 43 percent. Likely voters who described themselves as independent were behind Obama, 50 percent to 43 percent.
A majority of likely voters, 52 percent, said they viewed Obama favorably, while 45 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion. By comparison, 46 percent said they viewed Romney favorably, while 44 percent saw him negatively.
The survey of 1,519 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
In New Jersey, Obama led 51 percent to 43 percent, almost unchanged from his 51 percent to 44 percent edge in Quinnipiac’s Aug. 27-Sept. 2 survey.
Obama carried 55 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania and 57 percent in New Jersey in winning both states in 2008.
With voters already casting ballots and polls showing a tightening race,Obama had little room for error in Tuesday night’s second debate against Romney.
The two candidates took the stage as voters in 11 states, including the battlegrounds of Iowa and Ohio, already have been casting ballots. Among them: first lady Michelle Obama, who mailed her Illinois absentee ballot Monday.
By the end of the week, four of the nine most competitive states, the so-called battlegrounds, will have early, in-person voting under way – and that’s before the final debate scheduled for Monday. Four years ago, roughly one-third of all Americans voted before Election Day, a number that analysts who study the issue say could grow to as much as 40 percent this year.
The early-voting process, while meaning some votes will have been cast prior to the remaining debates, increases the focus on those who are undecided.
“Certainly the pool is shrinking, but it’s a target rich pool,” said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who studies early voting. “The fish the campaigns would like to catch, those persuadable voters, they’re still swimming in the pool.”
Obama’s campaign was promising a stronger performance by the president in Tuesday’s debate. His lackluster one in the Oct. 3 showdown led to a burst of enthusiasm for Romney and Democratic complaints about the direction of the incumbent’s re-election bid.
Both candidates spent Tuesday huddled with top aides to put the finishing touches on their answers, rebuttals and retorts.
Romney conducted six hours of dress rehearsals of the town hall-style format at a Marriott hotel near his home in Bedford, Mass.
Obama focused on his preparations in Williamsburg, Va., spending a third day largely in seclusion with advisers amid the rolling hills and manicured greens of the Kings Mill resort. The president, accompanied by advisers David Plouffe and Anita Dunn, took a stroll Tuesday for the cameras to his final debate prep session before heading to New York.
“I feel fabulous. Look at this beautiful day,” he said in response to questions from reporters. Asked if he was aware the first lady voted for him Monday by absentee ballot, Obama said, “Thank goodness.”
Emphasizing his campaign’s effort to drum up early votes, Obama plans to cast his ballot in person in Chicago on Oct. 25.
“With early voting you get to decide what day Election Day is,” said David Primo, a political science professor at the University of Rochester. “What Obama doesn’t want to do is perform poorly again tomorrow, so that voters who are undecided decide they’ve heard enough and cast a ballot against him in an early voting state,” Primo said Monday.
Obama campaign officials downplayed the link between early voting and the debate, saying Tuesday’s matchup represents only one facet of the decision-making process for voters. “It’s not the only factor that people early voting are making their choice on,” said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman.
While debates are focused on persuadable voters, efforts to turn out early votes are geared toward core supporters, said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist.
“It would be a stretch for anybody to suggest that because Gov. Romney had a good debate the first time, he’s going to neutralize the perceived advantage of the Obama campaign” in getting out its early voters, said Carrick, who isn’t affiliated with the president’s team.
Obama’s campaign has long said that early voting helped to solidify the president’s victory in 2008. Twenty-six percent of Ohio votes in 2008 were cast early, according data from the Obama campaign.
Today, Democrats have an edge in the state’s most populous county, Cuyahoga. More than 60 percent of the 47,756 absentee ballots returned as of Oct. 14, were cast by registered Democrats and 19.7 percent by Republicans, according to a report from the county board of elections.
There were 65,436 early votes cast by mail or in person through Oct. 14 in Franklin County, the state’s second-most-populous county, including 23 percent from registered Democrats, 18 percent from Republicans and 59 percent from unaffiliated voters, according to data provided by that county Board of Elections.
In Florida, voters from both parties are casting early mail ballots in similar numbers, wiping away an advantage that Republicans have typically held in the state.