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.
The Wisconsin congressman arrived for a Lynchburg rally in a pick-up truck with a large American flag flapping behind in the cab as AC/DC's "Rock 'N Roll Train" blared. In an interview with Virginia's conservative radio host John Fredericks, Ryan said supporters working to get out the vote for the GOP ticket "have been just really doing the Lord's work all throughout the state."
Romney political director Rich Beeson laid down a marker that Romney would be victorious in one of his most challenging swing-state contests — Ohio. "To be clear, the Romney-Ryan campaign will be victorious in the Buckeye State," Beeson said in a memo, written with the campaign's Ohio director, Scott Jennings, and arguing that several factors are working in Romney's favor there. No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, where polls show Obama running strong.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a top Romney supporter, wouldn't go as far as Beeson to predict a GOP win in Ohio.
"I can draw a scenario where Mitt Romney can win without Ohio, but it's a very, very difficult path," McCain said in an interview with The Associated Press while campaigning in Ohio for Romney. "And so I think the eyes of the world will be on Ohio and, from the polling that I see — and this is obviously a very dynamic situation — we could be up late."
Romney picked up the backing of former independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. "We can't afford four more years in which debt mushrooms out of control, our government grows and our military is weakened," Perot wrote in an editorial announcing his endorsement Tuesday in the Des Moines Register.
First lady Michelle Obama told students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that every vote is going to count in the closely fought contest and "to work like you've never worked before."
"I'm going to be honest with you," she said. "This journey is going to be hard. And there will plenty of ups and downs during this next 21 days."
Obama's campaign turned to former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday to make the case against what it says is Romney's $5 trillion tax cut. Clinton appears in a Web video for the campaign, picking apart Romney's tax plan piece by piece, saying his approach "hasn't worked before and it won't work this time."
The president's campaign says Romney hid from his tax proposal during the first debate, and pledged Obama would be more aggressive in calling out his rival's shifts on that and other issues this time around. Clinton, who has been praised by Democrats for explaining Obama's economic arguments more clearly than the president himself, appeared to be laying the groundwork in the video released hours before the second faceoff.
Obama's campaign, seeking to improve some of the optics that reinforced his poor performance, planned to send several elected Democratic officials to the "spin room" to speak with reporters immediately after the debate.
The campaign only had a handful of Obama advisers in the room after the first debate. Because those same advisers also had to meet with the president after the event, they showed up noticeably later than the Republican officials promoting Romney.
Their late arrival reinforced the notion of a campaign struggling to comprehend the president's lackluster performance.
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Tuesday's debate audience of uncommitted voters was selected by the Gallup Organization. Moderator Candy Crowley of CNN will choose who gets to speak after reviewing proposed questions to avoid repeats.
The final debate of the campaign will be Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., focusing on foreign policy.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, Bob Lewis in Lynchburg, Va., Nancy Benac in Washington and Julie Pace in Williamsburg, Va., contributed to this report.