Obama and Romney hit campaign trail after biting debate

Composite of presidential candidates on the campaign trail 17 October 2012 (Pics: AP/Getty) The two candidates are focussing on swing states with under three weeks until election day

US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney have returned to the campaign trail, a day after their fractious televised debate.

Sparks flew during Tuesday's encounter in New York as the candidates engaged directly with voters and each other.

On Wednesday they continued their pitches for the female vote, after a debate comment by Mr Romney on equal opportunities sparked debate online.

Post-debate audience polls gave the edge in the debate to Mr Obama.

The president was widely judged to have lost the pair's first head-to-head two weeks ago.

Some 65.6 million people watched the latest debate, according to Nielsen, nearly the same number that tuned into the first presidential debate.

Bruising exchange

With 20 days to go until the 6 November vote, the race is deadlocked.

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It is an open question whether the sort of passion on display last night will interest people more, or the tone will just turn more of them off”

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Mr Obama travelled to the key swing states of Iowa and Ohio on Wednesday, while Mr Romney held campaign events in Virginia, another potentially crucial election battleground.

In Iowa, the president mocked Mr Romney's claim that he had proactively attempted to pick female cabinet members after being elected governor of Massachusetts, choosing from what he described as "binders full of women" who were qualified for the positions.

Mr Romney's use of the phrase, while not inaccurate, became a talking point and viral humour hit.

"I've got to tell you, we don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women," Mr Obama said on Wednesday.

He also resumed attacks on Mr Romney's tax plan, calling it a "sketchy deal", that would only benefit wealthy Americans.

Meanwhile, Mr Romney also sought to paint Mr Obama as the wrong candidate for women.

"This president has failed America's women," Mr Romney said. "They've suffered in terms of getting jobs, they've suffered in terms of falling into poverty."

The Romney campaign also launched a new TV ad that urged women to consider the economy when making their presidential choice, and sought to take the edge off Mr Romney's opposition to abortion.

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If you look at history, characters and cartoons have been made as a way of expressing yourself. It's about trying to deliver your thoughts or opinions in a different type of way”

End Quote Elsbeth Roundtree Co-founder, Know Your Meme

"In fact he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life," a woman says in the ad, adding: "But I'm more concerned about the debt our children will be left with. I voted for President Obama last time, but we just can't afford four more years."

Mr Romney made gains nationally and in swing states after an assured performance during his first debate against a listless Mr Obama two weeks ago in Denver, Colorado.

BBC North America editor Mark Mardell says Mr Obama has stopped the panic in his camp.

What the president's campaign would have dreaded was anything that contributed to a narrative of decline and defeat for the Democrat as he reaches for a second term, our correspondent adds.

Obama's rebuke

It was a much more fired-up president who appeared for Tuesday's town hall-style forum at Hofstra University on Long Island to take questions from an audience of 80 undecided voters.

Mr Romney ceded little ground, though, setting the stage for a series of bruising exchanges that crackled with tension.

The two candidates stalked the stage, frequently interrupting and intruding on each other's personal space.

The true impact of Tuesday night's encounter will not become clear for a couple of days until opinion pollsters have conducted national and state-by-state surveys.

One major flashpoint revolved around last month's assault on the US Libya consulate, which Mr Romney said amounted to an "unravelling" of the president's foreign policy.

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Mr Romney said his rival's administration had quibbled for too long about whether to label it a terrorist attack. But Obama said he had described it as such the day afterwards at the White House.

The moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, interrupted Mr Romney to back the president's account, an intervention that has sparked uproar among conservative commentators.

Mr Obama glared at his challenger as he rebuked him, saying it was "offensive" to suggest that he had played politics with an attack that claimed four American lives.

Mr Romney aggressively returned Mr Obama's fire, accusing him of a litany of broken promises and a record of failure.

He delivered a series of stinging attacks on the president over the economy, charging him with failing to curb high unemployment or ballooning deficits.

"The president wants to do well, I understand," Mr Romney said. "But the policies he put in place have not let this economy take off as it could have.

Middle class families like the Shorts could determine who wins Ohio and therefore who wins the White House

Mr Obama produced one of the night's few zingers, about the Republican's wealth.

Mr Romney was defending his investments in China through a blind trust when he asked his rival if he had checked his own retirement plan.

"You know, I don't look at my pension," the president said. "It's not as big as yours."

The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for 22 October in Boca Raton, Florida.

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