COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney aggressively challenged each other Tuesday night in their second debate, with an estimated 65.6 million people tuning in to watch more than 90 minutes of sharp attacks, interrupted answers and testy exchanges over the economy, taxes, immigration and energy.
The president’s partisans were likely pleased with his tough-minded rebound from his tepid and much-maligned performance in the first debate earlier this month. Romney backers will be pleased with his continued willingness to confront his rival.
The third and final matchup between Obama and Romney is just around the corner. The candidates are scheduled to take the stage at Lynn University in Boca Raton on Monday in a foreign policy-focused debate moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer.
In the other’s face
Trying hard to erase the memory of his initial debate performance, Obama came on strong Tuesday, forcefully challenging Romney’s stands.
Romney countered just as vigorously by attempting to reinforce the confident, determined image he showed during their first matchup. The Republican challenger also aimed to show that his conservatism has a compassionate hue and to dispel the notion that he’s a wealthy, out-of-touch patrician.
Their second and perhaps pivotal debate had Obama and Romney fighting constantly, sometimes interrupting, and sometimes talking and correcting each other at the same time.
Didn’t answer question
One undecided voter, Katherine Fenton said she “felt incredibly lucky” to have the opportunity to ask a question at the debate. But the 24-year-old pre-K teacher said Wednesday that she didn’t think either candidate answered her inquiry about pay inequality for women. She said the two men focused on their record rather than their plans for the next four years.
In his answer, Obama mentioned the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill he signed into law in 2009, which expands workers’ right to sue based on discriminatory compensation decisions. Romney talked about how he met with women groups when he became governor of Massachusetts to seek qualified workers to serve in his administration.
Fenton’s questions sparked the most memorable phrase of the debate. When explaining how he made an effort to hire women to work in his Cabinet, Romney said he had put together “whole binders full of women.”
Not exactly true
That’s not exactly what happened, according to the nonpartisan Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, or MassGAP. Romney didn’t request the binders, the group said in a statement Wednesday.
In the lead-up to the 2002 gubernatorial election, MassGAP approached the campaigns of both Romney and his opponent, Shannon O’Brien, asking them to “make best efforts” to ensure that the number of women appointed to state leadership positions was proportionate to the population of women in Massachusetts, which was about 52 percent at the time. Both candidates pledged to do so and agreed to work with MassGAP during the process.
After Romney won the election, MassGAP presented Romney’s transition team with binders containing hundreds of resumes for top applicants vetted by the group.
By the middle of Romney’s term in 2004, women made up 42 percent of new appointments to senior-level positions in Massachusetts government, according to MassGAP. But by the end of his term in 2006, the percentage of newly appointed women in those positions had dropped to 25 percent, the group said.
“Romney paid lip service to the public about hiring more women in senior positions and treated it like a quota,” Jesse Mermell, a former executive director of MassGAP, said in a media call organized by the Obama campaign.
‘Facts don’t match’
“But like with so many other things with Mitt Romney, the facts didn’t match the rhetoric. Facts are facts, and despite what Governor Romney claimed in the debate last night, there were fewer women in senior administration positions during his term than the governors who came before and after him.”
A Romney spokeswoman said the governor worked with MassGAP to find the best-qualified women for top government posts. “The efforts resulted in Massachusetts having the most women in top positions in the entire country,” Andrea Saul said.
Romney’s awkwardly phras-ed comment about the binders started a social media frenzy before the debate even ended Tuesday. Within minutes, new Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Tumblr feeds mocking the phrase had gone viral. “Binders full of women” became the third most searched term on Google.
Campaigns move on
Picking up where their contentious debate left off, Obama and Romney battled Wednesday for the support of female voters, underscoring their potentially decisive role in settling the fiercely competitive race.
Obama traveled to the swing state of Iowa, where he renewed his attacks on Romney for proposing an end to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and again touted legislation he signed making it easier for women to sue for job discrimination.
“When Gov. Romney was asked about it, his campaign said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’” Obama said of the legislation, repeating a line from the debate. “That shouldn’t be a complicated question: Equal pay for equal work.”
Romney stumped in Virginia, another battleground, where he suggested women had borne the brunt of hardship during an Obama tenure marked by economic anxiety.
“Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?” Romney demanded during a stop at Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake. “This president has failed America’s women.
Women have been a key constituency for Obama, and their enthusiastic backing is vital to his re-election hopes. The president has counted on a strong showing among women to offset Romney’s edge among men. Generally, Obama has been strongest among younger and single women, while Romney has been most popular among older and married women.
After Romney’s commanding debate performance two weeks ago in Denver, polls found many women giving the Massachusetts governor a second look.
David Lightman, Anita Kumar and Lindsay Wise of McClatchy Newspapers; Christi Parsons and Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times; and Matea Gold of the Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT) all contributed to this report.