NEW YORK — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are returning to the sometimes-nasty rhetoric of a close presidential campaign after a brief truce, renewing their focus on two battleground states and preparing for next week's final, perhaps pivotal, debate.
Romney and Obama set aside their differences — mostly — to poke fun of themselves and each other Thursday night at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. On Friday, it's back to campaigning in Florida and Virginia, two of just a handful of states that will decide the election, now less than three weeks away.
Obama was planning a speech at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., rallying college students in the northern part of the state. Romney was to fly to Daytona Beach, Fla., for a rally with running mate Paul Ryan.
While they're both focused on the South, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls released Thursday showed Obama retaining his lead over Romney in Iowa and Wisconsin, two Midwestern battlegrounds. Obama's campaign circulated a memo highlighting the president's strength during the early voting period in Ohio, where Romney has largely staked his hopes of winning the White House.
But both kept relatively light public schedules as they planned to spend the weekend preparing for the third and final presidential debate, set for Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. Obama was leaving for the Camp David presidential retreat to prepare, while Romney planned preparations in Delray Beach, Fla.
"The next debate is on foreign policy," Obama told the white-tie audience at the Thursday evening dinner. "Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden."
Authorizing the raid that killed the terrorist leader was a high point in Obama's first term, and polls show voters give him high marks on handling foreign policy. But the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month has prompted Romney and Republicans to raise questions about Obama's policy in the Middle East.
In a television interview Thursday, Obama rejected criticism that his administration has offered a confused response to the attack in Benghazi, an accusation Romney has made repeatedly. Of any breakdown that might have led to the killing of four Americans, Obama declared, "We're going to fix it."
Obama made the comments on "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Host Jon Stewart pressed Obama over his administration's shifting explanations about the attacks in Benghazi. When Stewart suggested that even Obama would concede his administration's coordination and communication had not been "optimal," Obama said: "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. We're going to fix it. All of it."
Romney has pointedly questioned Obama's handling of the matter and how honest he's been about it with Americans. Those accusations led to the fiercest conflict of the presidential debate on Tuesday and surely will come to the fore again Monday in the campaign's final debate.
Obama insisted information was shared with the American people as it came in. The attack is under investigation, Obama said, and "the picture eventually gets filled in."
After that interview, Obama headed to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where he sat one seat over from Romney at the charity dinner, an annual gala that has drawn political leaders and other notables since the end of World War II. The event was a comedic pause in a contest that has drawn increasingly nasty and close.
Romney spoke first at the dinner, which was set to raise $5 million for Catholic charities. Addressing the elegantly dressed crowd, Romney, a millionaire many times over, said, "It's nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house." Of Obama, Romney said: "You have to wonder what he's thinking. So little time, so much to redistribute."
Obama followed, noting his soporific performance in the first debate but also chiding Romney for his wealth.
"Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," Obama said. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown."
He looked to his left, where Romney sat, grinning as his opponent laughed.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
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