HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met for their second debate Tuesday in a conversation that lived up to expectations it would be lively but lacked any specific discussion of LGBT issues that have played a prominent role elsewhere this election cycle.
The president faced pressure to deliver following a weak performance two weeks ago at the first debate in Colorado and an animated vice-presidential bout last week. Prior to the debate at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island, surrogates for Obama suggested he would seek to draw sharp contrasts with his Republican challenger.
“I think we’re going to see a spirited debate,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Certainly, the difference between these two candidates on so many issues is vast. I hope it’s an opportunity to really draw those distinctions clearly.”
Romney surrogates visited the spin room to say their candidate would argue the country needs a change in leadership.
“We’ve failed to see a vision,” said former New York governor George Pataki. “We’ve failed to see a very successful defense of those last four years, but I think equally important, what will he do in the next four? And I don’t think there’s been any positive agenda laid out.”
The candidates sparred for 90 minutes over questions submitted by undecided and uncommitted voters from Nassau County, a suburban area east of New York City that Pataki described as a “microcosm” of the country. Questions focused on jobs and the economy but also involved energy, immigration, pay equity, and the deaths of American diplomatic personnel in Libya.
Heated exchanges covered substance but also challenged debate procedure and at points veered toward the personal. Romney told Obama, “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.” Later, in response to a comment from Romney, Obama said, “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours.”
None of the voters asked questions specifically about LGBT issues. Neither the candidates nor moderator Candy Crowley of CNN pressed the theme when following up despite some clear opportunities, such as when Obama listed his accomplishments for a voter, or when the candidates discussed the “importance of parents” to a child’s development.
The president did make an inclusive statement against discrimination during his response to a question about pay equity for women.
“We’ve also got to make sure in every walk of life, we do not tolerate discrimination,” he said. “That’s been a hallmark of my administration.”
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said afterward that the president’s position on LGBT issues was captured in his broader message about “fairness.” He added that the president had mentioned repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the first debate.
“He talked about fairness, and he talked about his record moving us toward a more fair society. and that’s what those issues are about, a fairer society that moves this country forward,” he said.
The lack of any specific conversation occurs as four states prepare to decide on marriage-related ballot initiatives next month and the Supreme Court reviews challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act. New York, the host state for the debate, helped start the momentum last year when it passed marriage equality legislation.
“I think they were responding to questions and that wasn’t a question,” said New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the measure in his state. “Frankly, it was a question that I would have liked to have heard asked, but it wasn’t asked.”
Bay Buchanan, a Romney surrogate, said the debate spoke to LGBT voters in terms of her candidate’s promise of a “a strong economy.”
“He is opposed to same-sex marriage. He’s made that very clear,” she said. “Nothing has changed. But he is very supportive of opportunity for everyone.”
Asked how his positions, which include support for DOMA, would help families led by same-sex parents, Buchanan responded that Romney would not get in the way of what states decide to do on marriage and adoption.
“He very much supports traditional marriage, but he’s also a very strong advocate for the Tenth Amendment,” she said. “It’s a state issue.”
Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who is leading the campaign to uphold the marriage equality law in his state’s referendum, said that like the LGBT audience, immigration advocates had been hoping to hear their issue raised in the debate. The inclusion of immigration gives hope for mention of LGBT issues in the final presidential debate next week, he said.
“There’s still another debate to come up,” he said. “Maybe in the next debate we’ll hear the words gay and lesbian.”
Obama and Romney will meet Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., for a debate dedicated to foreign policy.