HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Romney, brimming with confidence, distilled the essence of his campaign message early in Tuesday's 90-minute debate and repeated it often.
"I know what it takes to get this economy going," he said over and over. And this: "We can do better." And this: "We don't have to settle for what we're going through."
Obama, with both the benefit and the burden of a record to run on, had a more nuanced message.
"The commitments I've made, I've kept," he said. "And those that I haven't been able to keep, it's not for lack of trying and we're going to get it done in a second term."
Obama also was relentless in dismissing the merits of Romney's policies and rejecting his characterizations of the president's record.
"Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan," the president argued. "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."
The candidates were in each other's faces — sometimes literally — before an audience of 82 uncommitted voters from New York. It's a state that's already a sure bet for Obama, but the voters there stood as proxy for millions of Americans across the nation who are still settling on a candidate.
"They spent a lot of time cutting down the other person," said 22-year-old Joe Blizzard, who watched with a crowd of 500 students at the University of Cincinnati. "As someone who is undecided, it was a little disappointing."
Fellow student Karim Aladmi, 21, was more forgiving. "It goes without saying that the knives were out," he said. "I thought Obama had a strong performance, but Romney made him work for it. I was actually impressed by both sides."