IOWA - Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seized on rows left smoldering from their angry debate Wednesday, flinging new blows in the hotly contested territory that will decide who wins the White House.
Twenty days from election day, and with the political world reverberating from one of the most contentious presidential debates in history, the two men charged onto the campaign trail in search of women voters and independents who could help one of them secure victory.
Obama accused Romney of offering a "sketchy deal" by failing to explain how he would pay for big tax and deficit cuts, warning that politicians who wait to get elected before giving specifics land voters with a nasty surprise.
And he mocked Romney for telling the 65 million viewers watching on television that he combed through "binders full of women" while recruiting qualified females for his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts.
The comment went viral on social media, spawning popular Facebook and Twitter parody accounts.
Obama used it to torch Romney over women's health care and equal pay, while highlighting his own record on women's rights and the need to boost teachers in math and science.
"We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women, ready to learn and teach in these fields right now," Obama told a crowd in a muggy gym at a liberal arts college in Iowa, which paired with other battlegrounds like Ohio and Nevada could pave a return route to the White House for four more years.
Romney himself wasted no time in appealing to female voters who could make the difference in swing states, after a spirited dispute between the candidates in the Long Island, New York debate on women's rights and health care.
"This president has failed America's women," he told a rally in Chesapeake, in the toss-up state of Virginia, as he explained how hard the sluggish economic recovery has been on women.
A fresh Gallup daily tracking poll showed Romney up six points among likely voters in his best showing yet, suggesting Obama's strong rebound after a listless first debate came just in the nick of time for his supporters.
A new survey by Marquette University, of traditionally Democratic Wisconsin, showed Obama up by a single point there, reflecting the view of strategists from both campaigns that the November 6 election could be agonizingly close.
Neither poll included data reflecting the impact of Tuesday's debate.
The 51-year-old Obama, in a tongue-in-cheek aside, implicitly admitted his intense showing was a big improvement on a listless performance in the first debate two weeks ago.
"I'm still trying to figure out how to get the hang of this thing, debating, but we're working on it. We'll keep on improving as time goes on. I've got one left," he said, referring to Monday's foreign policy donnybrook in Florida.
Romney, a multi-millionaire ex-governor of Massachusetts, also professed to be pumped up after the clash, in which the two men went toe-to-toe and roamed the stage, at times seeming to stop just short of a physical confrontation.
"I love these debates. You know, these things are great. And I think it's interesting the president still doesn't have an agenda for a second term," Romney said.
"Don't you think that it's time for him to finally put together a vision of what he'd do in the next four years if he were elected?"
The political class was still digesting the repercussions of the latest bitterly contested head-to-head, which included questions from undecided voters.
Romney running mate Paul Ryan stood by his man Wednesday, declaring on NBC News that Romney won because he "offered people a very concrete vision" about how he could get people back to work.
Vice President Joe Biden got in on the act too, describing Obama as "a man of courage."
"That's the man we got to see last night and I'm proud of him," he told supporters in the swing state of Colorado.
Ad hoc polls from major broadcasters gave Obama the edge, while analysts agreed that the Romney surge had hit a speed bump, leaving the race closely matched.
"The Republicans will be disappointed that Romney didn't put him away, and the Democrats will be reassured that the president is in full press now," said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College.
In one spellbinding exchange, Obama glared at Romney and rebuked him over his criticism of the White House's handling of a September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya which killed four Americans.
"The suggestion that anybody on my team... would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive," Obama said, wagging his finger at Romney.
Romney's strongest moments came when he delivered indictments of the Obama economy, charging the president with failing to rein in stubbornly high unemployment or cut ballooning deficits.
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