Moderator and local ABC news anchor Dennis Owens could barely get a word in edgewise as veteran political operatives Karl Rove and James Carville traded verbal punches over the 2012 presidential campaign Monday night at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry's annual dinner.
Rove, the GOP powerbroker and former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, documented his case against President Barack Obama in copious, unrelenting detail. He called the Democratic incumbent "unfit to be president," a summation that drew applause from the audience.
But electing Republican candidate Mitt Romney would mean returning to policies that have been tried and failed, said Carville, the Democratic strategist who managed Bill Clinton's first presidential bid.
"Why would you let the people back in who caused all this mess that you're trying to clean up?" he said.
The two men sparred over economic policy, foreign policy, and whether Pennsylvania is in play for Romney this year. Republicans appeared to have written off the state a few weeks ago, but recent polls show it could be competitive, Rove said.
Carville disagreed: If Republicans spend $10 million on Romney's campaign in Pennsylvania, "I will personally donate $5,000 to Penn State," he pledged.
On the economy, Rove called Obama's record "lousy," pointing to anemic 2.2 percent post-recession growth and a record 43 months of unemployment over 8 percent. The president's proposal to end the Bush tax cuts for top earners would punish small business and cost jobs, Rove said.
The president told David Letterman he didn't recall the size of the deficit and said it is unimportant in the short term, he said. The administration relentlessly makes life harder for U.S. companies with initiatives such as tighter Environmental Protection Agency regulations on power plants and health care reform, he said.
"This is a guy who does not understand how free enterprise works," he said.
Yet since the 2008 recession, 3.4 million private-sector jobs have been created under Obama, compared with 1.1 million jobs under Bush after the 2001-02 recession, Carville said. The country created 22 million jobs under Clinton, he said.
"Is he running?" Rove responded.
On foreign policy, Obama "is simply not engaged," Rove said. The president has treated Israel's prime minister "with thinly disguised contempt" and responded to the murder of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens with apologies rather than decisiveness, he said.
In response, Carville cited Admiral Bill McRaven's praise of Obama: In a CNN interview this summer, the U.S. Special Forces leader called Obama "fantastic" and his security team "an impressive group."
The two men often interrupted or spoke over each other, and Carville's thick Louisiana accent was not always intelligible in the large Hershey Lodge banquet hall. The audience of roughly 1,800 businesspeople and political leaders clearly preferred Rove's message, but both men drew their share of applause and laughter.
Speaking afterward, chamber President Gene Barr declined to say whether Rove or Carville prevailed in what he called an "extremely entertaining" debate.
"We saw two of the best political minds in the country," he said. "The audience won."