HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Fresh off an intensely combative debate, President Barack Obama, Republican Mitt Romney and their running mates are taking their tuned-up fight to the precious few battleground states where the election is up for grabs with just 20 days to go.
In the sprint to Election Day, Nov. 6, every aspect of the campaign seems to be taking on a fresh sense of urgency — the ads, the fundraising, the grass-roots mobilizing and the outreach to key voting blocs, particularly women. Obama wore a pink breast cancer bracelet while campaigning in Iowa and Romney's campaign dispatched former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to introduce vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in Ohio.
Rice and Ryan highlighted the plight of women in the current economy, with Ryan reading statistics from the podium on female unemployment and poverty rates under Obama's leadership. "We need to get people back to work," Ryan said. "We need to get this economy turned around."
Romney also quietly began airing a new TV ad suggesting he believes abortion "should be an option" in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.
The ad is an appeal to women voters, who polls show have favored Obama throughout the race although Romney has been making gains among them. Romney supported abortion rights as Massachusetts governor but now says he opposes abortion with limited exceptions. His campaign didn't announce the ad, but it began running on debate night on stations that reach Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Romney traveled with comedian Dennis Miller, and singer Lee Greenwood warmed up his crowd in southeast Virginia. Vice President Joe Biden was westward bound for Colorado and Nevada.
Obama appears to have 237 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory comfortably in hand, and Romney is confident of 191. That leaves 110 electoral votes up for grabs in nine battleground states: Florida (29), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6) and New Hampshire (4).
The candidates debated Tuesday night as if their political lives depended on it — because they do. It was a re-energized Obama who showed up at Hofstra University, lifting the spirits of Democrats who felt let down by the president's limp performance in the candidates' first encounter two weeks ago.
But Romney knew what was coming and didn't give an inch, pressing his case even when the arguments deteriorated into did-not, did-too rejoinders that couldn't have done much to clarify the choice for undecided voters.
The debate was the third installment in what amounts to a four-week-long reality TV series for Campaign 2012. Romney was the clear victor in the series debut, Biden aggressively counterpunched in the next-up vice presidential debate, and the latest faceoff featured two competitors determined to give no quarter.
It was a pushy, interruption-filled encounter filled with charges and countercharges that the other guy wasn't telling the truth. The two candidates were both verbally and physically at odds in the town hall-style format, at one point circling each other on center stage like boxers in a prize fight.
"I thought it was a real moment," Biden told NBC's "Today" show in a taped interview aired Wednesday. "When they were kind of circling each other, it was like, 'Hey, come on man, let's level with each other here.'"
One of the debate's tensest moments came when Romney suggested Obama's administration may have misled the public over what caused the attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month that killed four Americans. The issue is sure to continue to be debated next week at the third and closing debate, focused on foreign policy and scheduled for Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
"As the facts come out about the Benghazi attack we learn more troubling facts by the day," Ryan told "This Morning" on CBS. "So that's why need to get to the bottom of this to get answers so that we can prevent something like this from ever happening again."
Romney, brimming with confidence, distilled the essence of his campaign message early in Tuesday's 90-minute debate and repeated it often.
"I know what it takes to get this economy going," he said over and over. And this: "We can do better." And this: "We don't have to settle for what we're going through."
Obama, with both the benefit and the burden of a record to run on, had a more nuanced message.
"The commitments I've made, I've kept," he said. "And those that I haven't been able to keep, it's not for lack of trying and we're going to get it done in a second term."
Obama also was relentless in dismissing the merits of Romney's policies and rejecting his characterizations of the president's record.
"Gov. Romney doesn't have a five-point plan," the president argued. "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."
The candidates were in each other's faces — sometimes literally — before an audience of 82 uncommitted voters from New York. It's a state that's already a sure bet for Obama, but the voters there stood as proxy for millions of Americans across the nation still settling on a candidate.
"They spent a lot of time cutting down the other person," said 22-year-old Joe Blizzard, who watched with a crowd of 500 students at the University of Cincinnati. "As someone who is undecided, it was a little disappointing."
Fellow student Karim Aladmi, 21, was more forgiving. "It goes without saying that the knives were out," he said. "I thought Obama had a strong performance, but Romney made him work for it. I was actually impressed by both sides."
With just 20 days left until the election, polls show an extremely tight race nationally. While the Republican has made clear gains in recent days, the president leads in several polls of Wisconsin and Ohio. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
As the debates unfold, early voting is already under way in many states, and the push to bank as many early ballots as possible is in overdrive.
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Democrats cheered Tuesday when the Supreme Court cleared the way for Ohio voters to cast ballots on the three days before Election Day, rejecting a request by the state's Republican elections chief and attorney general to get involved in a rancorous battle over early voting. Obama's campaign and Ohio Democrats had sued state officials over changes in state law that took away the three days of voting for most people.
All the political maneuvering was little more than noise for more than 1.3 million Americans: They've already voted.
Pickler reported from Washington. AP writers Nancy Benac and Alicia Caldwell in Washington, James Fitzgerald and Steve Peoples in Hempstead, N.Y., Beth Fouhy in New York City and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, Ohio, contributed to this report.