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."