"President Bush and I are different people, and these are different times, and that's why my five-point plan is so different than what he would have done," the Republican presidential nominee said in response to a question from an undecided voter in the debate's town hall-style format who said she feared a return to Bush-type GOP policies if Romney wins the election.
Romney said unlike Bush, he would make the United States "energy secure," due to technologies that didn't exist when Bush was president. He criticized Bush for leaving behind a rising budget deficit, failing to deal aggressively on trade with China and for favoring big businesses over small ones.
"My priority is jobs. I know how to make that happen," Romney told the audience at a 5,000-seat sports and exhibition complex at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., near New York City.
Bush had "a very different path for a very different time," Romney said. "My path is designed in getting small businesses to grow and hire people."
But Obama said the differences between Romney and Bush went beyond economic policy.
"George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation," Obama said.
"George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood," Obama said. "So there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they're not on economic policy. In some ways, he's gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy."
In a vigorous televised debate that at times appeared like a spoken-word mixed martial arts match, with both candidates verbally striking and grappling, Romney later suggested the Obama administration intentionally misled the public in its shifting explanations of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Obama bristled at the assertion his administration withheld critical facts about the attack.
"The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," Obama said, standing and looking intently at his adversary.
"That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as commander in chief," Obama said.
Obama said he went to the White House Rose Garden the day after the attack to say "this was an act of terror," challenging Republican accusations the administration was purposely misleading when it described the Sept. 11 attack as a spontaneous demonstration sparked by an anti-Muslim video.
He also said, "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," a United Press International review of his Rose Garden remarks indicated. Those remarks may have been an allusion to the video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad.
During the debate Obama accepted responsibility for the security lapses that contributed to the four U.S. deaths. But he accused Romney of playing politics with a national-security crisis.
"While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points," Obama said, "and that's not how a commander in chief operates. You don't turn national security into a political issue -- certainly not right when it's happening."
The two quarreled over jobs, taxes, energy, immigration and a range of other issues.
Throughout the debate, Romney repeated the theme, "We just can't afford four more years like the last four years."
Obama four times mentioned Romney's vow to cut government funding for Planned Parenthood while Romney twice said there were 3.5 million more women living in poverty now than when Obama took office.
Romney also said seven times that 23 million Americans were out of work -- and twice said his five-point plan would "get this economy going again."
Obama responded: "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."
Obama made the case his administration had increased domestic oil production.
Romney countered, saying, "I don't think anyone really believes that you're a person who's going to be pushing for oil and gas and coal."
Obama stood up to interject.
"You'll get your chance in a moment," Romney said, showing the president the palm of his hand. "I'm still speaking."
Near the end of the 90-minute debate, Obama assailed Romney's secretly taped May 17 comments about the "47 percent" of Americans who he said did not take responsibility for their own lives.
"I believe Governor Romney is a good man -- loves his family, cares about his faith," Obama said. "But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility -- think about who he was talking about."
Obama mentioned people on Social Security, soldiers, veterans and students -- people paying payroll and gas taxes but "don't make enough income" to pay income taxes.
"I want to fight for them," Obama said. "That's what I've been doing for the last four years, because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds."
Even before Obama raised the 47 percent remark, Romney rebutted the attack by telling voters the president and his campaign were trying to characterize him "as someone who's very different than who I am.
"I care about 100 percent of the American people," he said. "I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again."