President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wasted no time throwing jabs at each other over the economy, taxes, energy and job creation at the town-hall style debate Tuesday night.

Obama, who was criticized for his lackluster performance in the first presidential debate in Denver, worked to make up for lost ground as Romney worked to keep his momentum.

In the Oct.16 Rasmussen daily Presidential Tracking Poll, Romney had a slight lead with 49% of voters nationwide. Meanwhile, Obama held 47%, with 2% preferring another candidate and another 2% undecided.

The debate setting was very different from the first in Denver. This time around, rather than a formal moderated question and answer session, the candidates fielded questions from a pool of 80 undecided voters. Topics included domestic and foreign policy issues like jobs, the economy, women’s issues and the tragedy in Libya on Sept. 11.

What to Do About Jobs

The debate kicked off with a question from a college student who will graduate in 2014 and is worried about his job prospects. Obama defended his record on jobs and how his policies relate to the economic recovery he promised back in 2008.

Challenger Romney didn’t skip a beat, firing holes in the president’s four-year record.

Romney began by telling the young man he knows what it takes to give “kids like you” jobs and outlined his five-step plan that includes reducing taxes, energy independence and education choice to create 12 million new jobs.

“You’ve got more and more debt on your back,” the governor said. “I’m going to change that. I know what it takes to create good jobs again. I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve. And kids across this country are going to recognize we’re bringing back an economy.”

Obama rebutted with an outline of his plan for job creation which he said created five million new jobs over the last 30 months. He added he intends to build manufacturing jobs and ensure the nation has the best education system in the world. Other points to his job-creation plan include deficit reduction, energy control and reforming the tax code. 

“We need to change our tax codes so we’re giving incentives to companies that are investing here in the United States and creating jobs here. It also means we’re helping them and small business to export all around the world to new markets.”

Fixing the Economy

With the economy being most voters top priority this election cycle, many of the questions focused on the recovery and how to promote growth.

When asked about taxes, Governor Romney said as president he’d bring tax rates down, simplify the tax code and lower taxes for middle-income payers to have lower taxes because that’s the sector that’s been buried over the last four years. To Obama’s record, Romney said the president hasn’t fulfilled his promise to reduce the deficit and implemented policies that have pushed health insurance premiums higher.

“The president has tried, but his policies haven’t worked,” he said. “We have a record to look at and it shows he hasn’t been able to get the economy where it should be and he hasn’t cut the deficit.”

Obama wasted no time firing back.

“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. 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. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate,” he said.

The president reiterated his point, saying his administration has cut taxes for middle income workers, but said in the next four years, for a full recovery, the wealthier Americans can “give a little bit more.” He said under his plan 90% of families and small businesses won’t see an increase, and tax rates will go back to Clinton-era policies for the top 2%– a time when the economy was healthy.

But perhaps the most heated discussion of the night came when the candidates sparred on the issue of gas prices, oil permits and energy policies as they relate to the economy.

The president contended he increased oil and coal production, increased energy efficiency standards, lowered oil imports and reduced demand on oil to keep prices steady. The president contended he took oil permits away from those that were unused, which increased production.

His remarks were met with hot contention from the governor who led the discussion to oil drilling permits across the country – an action he said he would support if elected. Romney continued to highlight that oil production on government land is down, causing prices to increase.

Tragedy in Libya turns political

The Obama Administration found itself in a web of controversy following the Sept.11 tragedy that left four Americans, including Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, dead. Immediately after the attack, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adamantly defended the position the attack was a result of a YouTube video that insulted Islam’s founder. To back up the claim, Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday talk shows following the attack reiterating that point. However, in the days and weeks to follow, more details of the attack unfolded to show it was pre-meditated – a far different explanation than the one the administration originally pushed.

The president reiterated his defense of his administration’s statements Tuesday night when an audience member asked why security was not increased when requested at the embassy.

“When folks mess with Americans, we go after them,” he said.

Romney questioned the validity of the president’s claim over what his team knew and when. “What I find most troubling is on the day following the assassination, the president flies to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser, then Colorado for another political event,” he said. “Those actions have symbolic significance and material significance.”

Obama then took shots at Romney, saying it wasn’t appropriate to turn this tragedy into a political issue.

Crowley’s Performance

CNN’s Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley had her work cut out for her moderating a free-flowing town hall debate format. She had to rein in both men to keep them on track and on time and often asked follow-up questions to get more clarified and specific answers.

In the days leading up to the debate, and in a rare show of political unity, both campaigns became concerned with Crowley’s comments about being more actively involved in the conversation. Earlier this month, she told CNN, “Once the table is kind of set by the town hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about x, y, z?” On Oct. 11 she added to her expectations:  “The nice thing will be, if the town hall person asks about apples, and they answer oranges, I get to say, ‘Wait a second, the question was about apples — let’s talk about that.”

 Where We Go From Here

With exactly three weeks before the election, every word, appearance and claim is under intense scrutiny as the candidates work to secure votes.

Experts agreed Obama was clearly more animated and engaged this time around, but the format proved challenging for both sides to hone in on their policies and make counter arguments.

Ben Voth, expert in debate and persuasion and chair of corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University, said this debate format proved to be the highest degree of difficulty, but both candidates met expectations this time around.

“The public generally hoped to see the same or similar successful candidate from the first debate,” he said. “Romney continued to offer a clear alternative in the five-point plan. He demonstrated comfort and empathy with the audience which is important to raising his favorability.”

By contrast, Voth said Obama met expectations from his supporters after a weak showing in Denver. He said the confrontations by both candidates escalated the debate and this time around Obama showed more energy and direct refutation to the governor.

Voth zeroed in on the energy policy debate as dominating the evening, and said both candidates excelled--but one came out victorious.

“Romney seemed to best the president on this topic area by arguing that gas prices are rising under the current policies,” he said. “Economic issues also had prominent emphasis and both candidates had strong challenges and arguments to their side.”

But it’s not just the candidates and their policies that will be a topic of discussion Wednesday morning. As in the previous debate, Crowley will likely become a talking point and focus of morning-after discussion. Voth threw in his two cents about the moderator’s handling of the evening’s conversations, saying she favored the president by limiting Romney’s ability to respond.

“Candy Crowley exceeded the agreed upon framework for the debate and diminished the overall process,” he said. “Debates are not about moderators. By ‘clarifying’ and ‘adding’ to the debate, she became inappropriately involved in the arguments. There exists an abundance of news and journalistic outlets with the candidates themselves without adding a fourth party to this already complex debate format.”

Follow Victoria Craig on Twitter @VictoriaCraig.