Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Barack Obama was looking to rebound in a White House debate rematch Tuesday, promising a more aggressive charge against rival Mitt Romney to stop the Republican's gains since their first face-off two weeks ago.
The stakes could not be higher for the incumbent and challenger locked in a dead heat in polls nationally and some key states three weeks before Election Day. Many Americans are already casting ballots in early voting, giving the pair little chance to recover from any missteps during the 90-minute debate at New York's Hofstra University.
"I feel fabulous," Obama told reporters on his way into a meeting with top aides that ended three days of intensive "debate camp" to prepare. The pressure was especially high on Obama after even he admitted he lost the first debate.
Obama spent about 20 minutes inside Hofstra's basketball arena to get familiar with the town hall-style setting that will feature questions about domestic and foreign policy from an audience of about 80 voters uncommitted to either candidate. Romney arrived an hour later for his own walk-through.
The town hall-style format makes it especially tricky for Obama to strike the right balance in coming on strong against Romney without turning off the audience — and tens of millions of television viewers — by going too negative. Obama had said his first performance was "too polite."
"I think it's fair to say that we will see a little more activity at the next one," he told radio host Tom Joyner last week.
Both sides have unfurled new ads, hustled at the grassroots level to lock down every possible voter, dispatched surrogates to rev up enthusiasm and kept the running mates busy raising cash and campaigning in the most hotly contested states. Leading into the debate, Obama released a new commercial embracing his economic record, which many Republicans see as his biggest liability.
But the president has been encouraged by recent signs the economy is improving.
New reports Tuesday showed consumer prices stayed tame and homebuilder confidence rose, while factory output grew only modestly. The Romney campaign pointed to battery maker A123 Systems Inc.'s filing for bankruptcy protection Tuesday as evidence Obama's economic policies are failing, since the alternative energy company received a $249 million grant from his administration to build U.S. factories.
"A123's bankruptcy is yet another failure for the president's disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of taxpayer dollars on a strategy of government-led growth that simply does not work," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
On foreign policy, Obama refused to answer when reporters asked Tuesday whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton was responsible for security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed last month. Clinton said in interviews that she was responsible, not the White House.
Romney pressed the White House on the matter last week after Biden said in the vice presidential debate that "we weren't told" about requests for extra security at the consulate. But State Department officials, testifying before Congress that day, said they were aware of those requests. Clinton backed up the White House's assertion that the issue didn't rise to the president or vice president's attention.
With both candidates preparing for the debate and Vice President Joe Biden attending former Senate colleague Arlen Specter's funeral, Romney running mate Paul Ryan was the only member of either ticket out campaigning. Ryan sought the support of Bible-belt voters in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
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