HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Two alphas in the fight of their lives, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred with passion and grit in a debate that previewed the closing arguments of a campaign that keeps circling back to bedrock questions about which candidate can do more to strengthen the fragile economy.
Fresh off their latest encounter and with just three weeks left in the race, the candidates fan out in all directions Wednesday to pitch their tuned-up messages directly to voters on some of the campaign's most treasured turf: Romney in Virginia, Obama in Iowa. Vice President Joe Biden is westward bound for Colorado and Nevada; GOP running mate Paul Ryan returns to all-important Ohio.
It was a re-energized Obama who showed up for Tuesday's debate 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.
Tuesday's 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 center stage like boxers in a prize fight.
"I thought it was a real moment," Biden told NBC's "Today" show in an interview that aired Wednesday morning. "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 was when Romney suggested Obama's administration may have misled Americans 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, with the third and closing debate focused on foreign policy scheduled 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.
"Governor 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 Republicans have 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.
In the sprint to Election Day, every aspect of the campaign seems to be taking on a fresh sense of urgency — the ads, the fundraising, the grass-roots mobilizing, the outreach to key voting blocs, particularly women.
Both sides are pouring millions upon millions into TV ads in the battleground states, and independent groups are adding buckets more.
The debate didn't break a lot of new ground, although Romney signaled a shift in his stance on immigration.
The GOP nominee previously had said he would veto legislation to provide a path to legalization for young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. But Tuesday night, he said such young people "should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States."
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.
Democrats cheered when the Supreme Court on Tuesday 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 of the political maneuvering was little more than noise for more than 1.3 million Americans: They've already voted.
Benac reported from Washington. AP writers Nedra Pickler and Alicia Caldwell in Washington, James Fitzgerald and Steve Peoples in Hempstead, N.Y., and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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