A sharp exchange over the U.S. response to the September 11 terrorist attack in Libya dominated the political discussion on Wednesday following a bruising debate that analysts and polls scored a victory for President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The Tuesday night debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, featured a revitalized Obama fighting back against his equally combative GOP foe in an argumentative encounter three weeks before Election Day.
With a third and final debate next week, the candidates appeared likely to secure their standing in an already tight race that portends a cliffhanger presidential vote.
On Wednesday, both campaigns continued their focus on battleground states considered crucial to winning the White House.
Obama headed to Iowa, where he took aim at Romney proposals at an event at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.
"His tax plan doesn't add up. His jobs plan doesn't create jobs. His deficit reduction plan adds to the deficit," Obama said. "So Iowa -- everybody here has heard of the New Deal, you've heard of the Fair Deal, you've heard of the square deal - Mitt Romney is trying to sell you a sketchy deal."
Romney campaigned in Virginia, where he said the president was out of ideas after what he called four years of failed leadership.
"I think it is pretty clear that when it comes to his policies and his answers and his agenda he is pretty much running on fumes," Romney told a campaign event in Chesapeake.
His running mate, conservative Rep. Paul Ryan, offered a similar attack line at his own event in Ohio, saying sluggish growth and high unemployment "may be the best President Obama can give us, but it's not the best we can give ourselves."
Obama also will campaign in Ohio later Wednesday and Vice President Joe Biden heads to Colorado and Nevada.
In the second debate, Obama rebounded from a lackluster performance in the initial meeting with Romney two weeks ago in Denver.
Obama forcefully defended his policies and challenged Romney on shifting positions on key issues while arguing his Republican rival's proposals would favor the wealthy if elected on November 6.
Romney repeatedly attacked Obama's record, saying millions of unemployed people and a sluggish economic recovery showed the president's policies had failed.
On the sensitive topic of the Libya attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Romney suggested the Obama administration played politics by failing to immediately acknowledge what happened.
Obama shot back that the suggestion anyone in his administration would play politics on such an issue was "offensive." When Obama said he called it an act of terror shortly after it occurred, Romney challenged him, and Obama responded by saying "check the transcript."
Moderator Candy Crowley, CNN's chief political correspondent, cut in to say both men were right -- Obama referred to an act of terror shortly after the attack, but the administration took longer to fully explain what occurred.
Ryan challenged that assessment on Wednesday, telling CBS that Obama's initial remarks on the Benghazi attack were "a passing reference to acts of terror in general."
He noted that Obama and others, including U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, subsequently suggested the violence spawned from a protest over an anti-Islam video before clarifying two weeks later it was a terrorist attack.
"The facts just don't square with that line of argument," Ryan said.
Another Republican, Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia, told CNN that Crowley's intervention helped Obama.
"That may have thrown Governor Romney off his game just for a second," Gingrey said Wednesday, insisting later that whether intended or not, Crowley "did aid and abet President Obama in that exchange."
Biden and a top Obama campaign strategist called the Republican criticism an attempt to play politics with a tragic issue.
"It became so clear to the American people how Governor Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy," Biden told ABC. "And their strategy seems to be to make it appear that the president didn't care, didn't know, or was lying. The fact of the matter is, the president was clear. We are going to get to the bottom of this. The whole world will know it."
Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary now helping the Obama campaign, said Romney's response to the Libya attack and other anti-U.S. violence in Egypt included an initial erroneous statement and now what he called trying "like Olympic gymnasts to politicize the issue by doing whatever they have to do."
Romney "has handled this thing enormously poorly from his very first response all the way through this debate," Gibbs told CNN, adding that the former Massachusetts governor "doesn't look look a strong commander in chief."