HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – President Barack Obama put the drama back into his presidential bid Tuesday.

After a passive performance in the first debate two weeks ago, a new Barack Obama showed up for Tuesday’s town hall with an energetic, combative defense of his first term and a vigorous critique of his GOP rival.

Mitt Romney held his own, matching the president number for number in a blizzard of math about the budget, taxes and the deficit. But it was Obama who seized the rhythm of the evening, mounting a drumbeat of attacks by taking every question and turning it on his Republican foe.

Obama countered, interrupted and challenged Romney in a series of kinetic exchanges that dispelled the Cool Hand Barack persona of two weeks ago.

It was undoubtedly what staunch Democrats wanted to see, and if the election comes down to which party’s base is more motivated, that might be a key difference. But in the process, Obama might have risked damaging his two most coveted political qualities: likability and presidential dignity.

“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 said at one point.

Moments later, the president declared: “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.”

Two weeks ago, Obama was panned for looking down at his podium and scribbling notes. This time, he leveled a steady gaze at Romney all night — repeatedly jumping from his stool to challenge his opponent. When the former Massachusetts governor asserted the administration has cut energy production on federal land, Obama interrupted.

“Not true, Gov. Romney,” he said.

“So how much did you cut?” Romney asked.

“Not true,” Obama repeated.

Romney had moments of pique, too, frequently going back to previous topics and at one point pushing back by telling the president: “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking.”

The candidates took questions in a kind of theater in the round, face to face with self-proclaimed undecided voters in an environment that invited Obama and Romney to make personal connection.

Since their first debate, Romney has whittled Obama’s lead in the polls, especially in the battleground states where the race will be decided. Real Clear Politics currently counts 11 battlegrounds (amounting to 146 electoral votes) as true tossups — a remarkable turnaround from just weeks ago, when several traditional swing states, including all-important Ohio, appeared to be slipping away from Romney.

The change is a sign of a much tougher political path for Obama. Four years ago, candidate Obama was leading John McCain in every battleground, several by double digits. Not this year, where the president barely leads or is in a statistical tie with his Republican foe.

Obama went into the debate balancing two competing roles: commander in chief and empathizer in chief, both likable and assertive, expressing presidential authority on matters of state and empathy for Americans battered by four years of a sour economy.

The town hall cast a bright light on the differences between the candidates: Obama would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, implement his health care law and support the kind of policies, like bailing out the auto industry, that he says have helped the country weather the economic demise.

As for Romney, he opposes the tax hikes for the wealthy, says he would repeal Obamacare and warns that four more years of spending by the Obama administration with only grow a perilous national debt and saddle future generations with the bill.

But it was the stylistic touches that defined the evening — Obama’s aggressiveness, Romney’s pushback.

For Obama, the questions were largely springboards to bash his opponent, which he did with a relentless style.