In the second presidential candidate debate, an aggressive Mitt Romney and a rejuvenated Barack Obama faced a town hall forum grilling, with both playing well to their own camps.

Obama faced the steeper challenge, coming off his sleepwalk through the first debate. His return was strong and passionate, and should bring huge relief to his Democratic base.

Romney, ramping up his domineering, interruption-prone style, may have taken the “leadership” trait a step too far Tuesday night, edging into bullying territory.

More troubling is the Republican challenger’s continued reluctance to specify how he will produce the job growth and economic boost he promises. The five-point plan he pushes is full of good cheer and little detail.

Obama hit hard on this point, urging Americans to not buy Romney’s “sales pitch. It doesn’t add up.”

We share his concern.

Romney’s strongest jabs were the recitation of what’s hurting in the economy, the lack of jobs, the rise in poverty and the growing deficit.

Obama, to his credit, offered detailed rebuttals to criticism on energy, jobs and social issues.

The debate should help clarify for voters significant differences in policies. Among the disagreements:

* Obama pushed and signed the Lilly Ledbetter law to better protect women who earn less than men in comparable jobs. Romney evaded the pay equity law question, saying that as governor of Massachusetts he requested “binders full of women” to fill cabinet posts — a peculiar phrasing that went viral on the Internet. Point Obama.

* Obama supports revisiting the assault weapons ban. Romney said he did not want more laws. We say: Ban them.

* Obama favors the wind energy tax credit. Romney dodged a direct answer. We side with Obama and the Kansas Republicans on this issue. Develop wind energy and give it a chance to help build a clean alternative energy source.

* Women’s issues got more attention in the second debate, including access to contraception and the two men’s differences on funding Planned Parenthood. Obama supports Planned Parenthood, our position. Romney opposes federal funding.

As expected, the terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others led to a question about adequate security, with Romney criticizing the administration for failing to protect American lives.

Obama took full responsibility, castigated Romney for quickly politicizing a tragedy, and reiterated his intention to hunt down those responsible. In response to allegations the administration misled the nation about the cause of the attacks, Obama strongly objected, calling it “offensive. It’s not what we do.”

And Obama caught Romney on a factual issue. He referenced terrorism the day following the murders, something Romney claimed the president hadn’t mentioned.

While Romney repeated his professed concern for 100 percent of Americans, it was Obama’s closing comments that resurrected the private disparaging comment Romney made to wealthy donors about the 47 percent of the nation who don’t take personal responsibility.

It’s an alienating reference, and a powerful point for Obama to use as his walkoff.

Obama was more presidential and more in control in this second debate. Romney turned his “management” of the debate into unattractive, unfair play.

The question remains: Do debates shape the outcome of elections? Most experts say no, but the lift Romney received from the first one led more to believe debates can affect the race. With one more debate ahead, on Monday, the table is set for a final face-off, and rising expectations that the third performance may be critical to the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.

Editorial by The Kansas City Star

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