President Barack Obama's campaign moved swiftly Wednesday to try to capitalize on his spirited debate performance, making an aggressive push on women's issues and Libya and pressing the notion that Mitt Romney's economic proposals are "sketchy."
Obama's strategy aims to solidify his crucial lead among female voters and his standing as the candidate viewed more favorably on foreign policy, the topic of Monday's third and final debate. Democrats had worried that both advantages could slip away after the president's lackluster performance in the opening face-off with Romney and the fallout from last month's deadly attack on Americans in Libya.
Obama, visibly energized on the campaign trail, hammered Romney on a flurry of women's issues, from fair pay to Planned Parenthood funding. And he poked fun at his Republican rival for saying during the debate he had relied on "binders full of women" to find more female employees while serving as Massachusetts governor.
"We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women," Obama said at a rally in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
The impact of the second debate on the tightly contested White House race won't be clear for several days. But Obama's rebound provided much-needed reassurance to anxious Democrats, some of whom feared the president lacked the passion to fight for his job. The campaign insists the debate halted Romney's October momentum and keeps open their pathways to victory in all nine or so battleground states.
"In those states, if the election were held today, I'm as confident as anything I've been in my life, that we would win the election," said David Plouffe, Obama's senior adviser.
The president's top aides were energized by his performance at the town-hall style debate on Long Island. Aides watching from backstage erupted in cheers at some of his pointed attacks. And there were outbursts of applause at the campaign's Chicago headquarters, a sharp contrast to the sullen mood there during the first face-off.
Advisers said the debate exchanges on women and Libya gave them the biggest opportunity to appeal to the narrow swath of voters in key states who remain undecided less than three weeks from Election Day.
Obama's campaign is expected to target Romney's positions on women's health issues. In particular, they plan to contrast Romney's assertion that "every woman in America should have access to contraceptives" with his support for legislation which sought to reverse the administration's policy requiring religious-affiliated institutions to cover contraception costs.
Obama's team has run television advertisements previously on Romney's positions on women's health issues and may do so again.
Explaining the focus on women, Plouffe said, "There are more undecided women than men in all the battlegrounds."
Polls have long showed Obama holding an edge over Romney with female voters. But some surveys showed Romney making gains with women after the first debate, a shift strategists in both parties attributed to the softer, more moderate tone the Republican struck in that face-off.
The Democratic ticket was also buoyed in the latest debate by the candidates' exchange on the September attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the attack, and the Obama administration has faced intense criticism about its security levels at the consulate and shifts in its explanation about the violence.
The president countered Romney's criticism by saying that as president, he is "always responsible" for attacks on American interests overseas. And Romney got tripped up on his accusations that the president didn't refer to the attacks as terrorism in the immediate aftermath.
Speaking in the Rose Garden the day after the violence, Obama had referred to "acts of terror."
The candidates have less than a week to prepare for Monday's final debate, when they expect a fuller discussion of Libya. The president has campaign trips scheduled through Friday and plans to spend the weekend practicing with his debate team at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Obama's team said the debate helped sharpen their message on the economy, the top issue for voters. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, Obama called Romney's economic proposals "a sketchy deal," a phrase voters can expect to hear frequently in the campaign's closing weeks.
The campaign also plans to use a debate exchange on immigration in its final push for Hispanic votes. Obama needs to run up big margins with Hispanics in swing states like Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. The president used the debate to promote his administration's efforts to provide a path to legal status for many young illegal immigrants, while Romney said he wouldn't grant amnesty to people who come to the U.S. illegally.
Obama's aggressive debate performance calmed the nerves of many Democrats, no small accomplishment given the deep anxiety that set in among many supporters following the president's first debate.
"I think everybody takes their cue from the leader," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign strategist.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.
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