WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney consumed a good portion of Tuesday night’s debate fact-checking one another.
And while they sometimes sounded like squabbling siblings in the back seat of the family car, their words, albeit occasionally out of context, zeroed in on vulnerabilities that could be critical in the campaign’s final weeks.
The most contentious moment came in response to a question from a member of the audience about embassy security in Libya. That gave Romney a chance to accuse the president of waiting a full two weeks before conceding that the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador was in fact terrorism.
Obama fired back that he had done so the next day in a statement in the White House Rose Garden. Romney seemed taken aback.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney said, with a sharp look at the president to emphasize his incredulity.
“Get the transcript,” the president replied.
The moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley interjected, “It, it, it, he did in fact, sir.” But she also added: “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out.”
In fact, Obama used the word “terror” in the Rose Garden statement but did not specifically apply it to the Benghazi attack.
After a reference to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, as well as to Benghazi, he said: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation...”
It’s also true that the administration only slowly acknowledged that the assault was orchestrated by extremists rather than a demonstration that spun out of control.
The two also bickered over words in connection with energy policy. Romney said the administration’s tight regulations are throttling fossil fuel production and eliminating jobs.
“What we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas,” Romney said. “This has not been Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal.”
Obama then flung in Romney’s face a statement the challenger made while fighting a polluting coal facility in Massachusetts.
“When I hear Governor Romney say he’s a big coal guy, I mean, keep in mind, when - Governor, when you were governor of Massachusetts, you stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills,’ and took great pride in shutting it down. And now suddenly you’re a big champion of coal.”
Romney did in fact utter approximately those words in 2003 when fighting Pacific Gas and Electric’s efforts to delay tougher anti-pollution standards against the Salem Harbor Power Station in the Boston area, according to PolitiFact.
The candidates were at each others’ throats over immigration as well. An audience member named Lorraine Osorio asked the contenders what they would do about people working in the United States without proper documentation.
The president attacked Romney for supporting an Arizona state law that many consider excessively harsh because it allows police officers to ask people for identification if they suspect them of having entered the United States illegally.
“He called the Arizona law a model for the nation,” the president said.
But Romney defended himself, saying he had only singled out a portion of the law that was less controversial as worth emulating.
“I did not say that the Arizona law was a model for the nation in that aspect,” he said, adding he said the “E-Verify” part of the law that requires employers to verify the legal status of employees was a model.
A transcript of Romney’s comment, made during a February 2012 CNN Republican primary debate, seems more or less to support Romney’s version.
During a discussion of immigration policy, he said: “You know, I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says - that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E- Verify.”
Immigration is a sore spot for Romney for many, particularly among Hispanic voters, because the former Massachusetts governor has advocated a “self-deportation” approach that aims to make undocumented immigrants uncomfortable enough to leave on their own. Many consider it draconian.
The two also exchanged barbs over domestic energy production, with Romney nettling the president with his accurate charge that production of oil on public land is down 14 percent and production of gas on public land is down 9 percent.
“Production is up,” Obama said.
“Is down,” Romney replied.
“No it isn‘t,” the president insisted.
While Romney’s numbers are correct, the decline is “cherry-picked” and doesn’t reflect overall trends, PolitiFact says. Production was hobbled one year by the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
From 2009-2011 oil production rose two out of three years for a net increase of 10.6 percent, according to PolitiFact, which cites U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
In the Bush years it fell four of five years for a net decrease of 16.8 percent.
Reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Lucy Shackelford; Editing by Fred Barbash and Jim Loney