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Editorial: Hofstra debate puts Barack Obama, Mitt Romney in sharper contrast

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University. (Oct. 16, 2012) Credit: AP

What voters needed from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last night was clarity: plain-spoken prescriptions for the nation's future and what each would mean for ordinary Americans.

Those prescriptions did come into sharper relief, largely because of the wide range of subjects posed by the undecided Nassau County voters in the audience at Hofstra University. The format, expected to be tame, actually provoked biting contrast between the two men. But did the smackdowns really enlighten the voters -- or change anyone's mind?

Beyond the expected jousting over jobs, taxes and the economy, the candidates talked about energy, wage equity and contraceptives for women, and gun violence. And for the first time, Romney was asked point-blank how his policies would differ from those of President George W. Bush. The topics shouldn't have caught either candidate off-guard, but their cobbled-together answers did succeed in drawing out differences between the candidates.

The two men finally had a face-to-face exchange on immigration, where their policy differences are stark. Obama cited his "dream act" executive order, allowing temporary legalization for people brought here as children, and reaffirmed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. But he never said how he would get it accomplished. Romney reiterated his opposition to the Dream Act and said he opposed amnesty.

On the provocative question of how Romney would differ from Bush, Romney said he would crack down on China's trade practices, balance the budget and champion small business -- three things he said Bush didn't do. But the centerpieces of Romney's plan are tax cuts and deregulation, the same agenda Bush championed.

The candidates also mixed it up on the troubling issue of the attack in Libya, in which a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Romney said it demonstrated that Obama's policies in the war on terror and "leading from behind" in the Middle East have not worked. He pushed Obama to accept responsibility for inadequate embassy security, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent statement that those decisions are hers.

On energy, Romney slammed Obama for gas that is more expensive now than when he took office. But in hammering his message that he would authorize more oil drilling and coal production than Obama, his support of renewables -- solar, wind and biofuels -- appeared to be an afterthought.

The stakes were off the charts for Obama in this second debate. After his uninspired Oct. 3 debate performance he was facing a decisive moment in the race. He mounted a more forceful defense of his record and was somewhat clearer about where he'd take the country. The challenge for Romney was daunting too. Maintaining the momentum he claimed Oct. 3, expanding on sometimes inconsistent policy prescriptions and simultaneously connecting with the audience was a demanding agenda, that Romney wasn't completely successful in navigating.

But because the exchange was wide ranging and more detailed, the American people won last night.