Circling each other like boxers at times and looking one another in the eye, President Obama and Mitt Romney came out swinging as soon as tonight's debate began, sparring over Libya, energy production, and an assault weapons ban.
At one point during a particularly heated exchange, Romney snapped when Obama tried to interrupt, "I'm still speaking."
An another point, Obama said Romney's insinuation that his administration played politics with the deaths of four Americans in Libya was "offensive."
Obama, whose performance at the first debate two weeks ago was roundly considered to be lackluster, tried to make up lost ground tonight.
Within the first 20 minutes of the debate, the president repeatedly accused Romney of stretching the truth, attacking Romney's comments, for example about job creation, as "just not true."
Obama earned high marks from some for his performance.
"This was a heavyweight fight," said Republican strategist and ABC News consultant Matthew Dowd.
"He didn't knock him out, but he came out swinging. Obama won tonight," Dowd said and called it a "clear victory for Obama."
Veteran political commentator George Will did not pick a winner, but said it was a great debate.
"I have seen every presidential debate in American history since Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. This was immeasurably the best," Will said.
In a particularly heated exchange, Romney said the president failed to immediately call the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead an act of terror. The Republicans have hammered the administration's failure to either recognize it as a terror attack or admit that it was a terror attack.
The president, however, said he appeared in the Rose Garden the day after the attack and called the killing a terror attack. When Romney argued that it was not true, moderator Candy Crowley stepped in to say the president had called the attack terrorism the next day.
"Say that a little louder, Candy," Obama called out.
The audience, which had been watching the two men contradict each other and interrupt each other, began to applaud.
Obama also said at a later point, looking over at Romney, "The suggestion that anyone on my team would play politics (after four Americans died) is offensive."
The two tangled over energy policies with Obama claiming the country has produced more oil, gas and coal than what was produced under President George W. Bush, "and he was an oil man," Obama said.
Romney insisted the Obama administration has cut the number of licenses to drill on federal land, while Obama said he has taken licenses away from companies that were simply sitting on the drilling licenses and not using them so they could be given to other drillers.
Both men were off their stools talking into microphones and trying to talk over each other, insisting the other man was wrong.
When Romney eventually wrangled the floor to himself, Obama tried to interject, prompting Romney to snap, "You'll get your chance in a moment. I am still speaking."
The candidates cut each other off, sometimes jumping out of their chairs and arguing with Crowley to get more time. Their exchanges were marked with cutting comments like, "Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true," and Romney facing Obama to say, "Here's a bit of advice."
Obama, who looked down during much of the first debate, kept his eyes on Romney and often leaned forward as if eager for his turn to speak.
Some pundits believed that the town hall structure of tonight's debate, in which 80 undecided voters made up the audience and ask questions of the candidates, would keep them from being aggressive were quickly proven wrong.
"I understand the stakes here," said Crowley, CNN's chief political correspondent, in an effort to put some order on the debate.
Romney, who has been stiff on the trail but has come off as poised and confident in the debates, repeatedly attacked the president's stewardship.
He highlighted the country's budget deficit. "The president said he'd cut the deficit in half, instead he doubled it. This puts us on a road to Greece," Romney said.
There are "23 million people struggling to find a job. ... The president's policies have been exercised over the last four years and they haven't put America back to work," Romney said. "We have fewer people working today than when he took office."
Obama mocked Romney's often cited "five point plan" to lower taxes in an effort to end the deficit, saying it was lacking in detail.
"Gov. Romney doesn't have a 5 point plan," the president said. "He has a one point plan, that people at the top play by different rules."
"We haven't heard from the governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood in terms of how he pays for that," he said.