Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were heading to key swing states Tuesday after a fiesty final presidential debate, as the battle for undecided voters heats up two weeks ahead of election day.
The two were running neck and neck before Monday's foreign policy debate, in which a commanding Obama battered his challenger's positions as "wrong and reckless" while Romney struck a moderate tone and avoided any major missteps.
The focus will likely return to the economy as the two campaign in the key battlegrounds expected to decide the election, with the president speaking in Florida and Ohio and his Republican rival heading west to Nevada and Colorado.
Post-debate polling suggested Obama had bested his opponent, but analysts said the election was unlikely to turn on foreign policy and would instead come down to a street-by-street push for every last swing state voter.
The Democratic incumbent came out swinging in Monday's debate, with Romney avoiding any catastrophic error but often finding himself on the defensive, apart from lambasting Obama over the lagging economy.
US President Barack Obama (left) greets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (right) following the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were heading to key swing states Tuesday after a fiesty final presidential debate, as the battle for undecided voters heats up two weeks ahead of election day.
"I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama said, accusing his opponent of being "all over the map" on a wide range of issues.
"Attacking me is not an agenda," the former Massachusetts governor countered, renewing charges that Obama had mounted "apology tours" abroad, prompting the president to accuse him of telling a "whopper."
Obama had the best lines of the night and sharply cross-examined Romney on his approach to Syria, Iran and trade with China, accusing him of "airbrushing history" by dumping earlier hawkish conservative positions.
The Republican, who has spent months attempting to paint Obama as a weak appeaser, actually backed much of the substance of the president's global strategy, courting wavering voters ahead of the November 6 election.
In a clear bid to moderate his image, Romney endorsed Obama's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, supported the president's lethal drone war against terror suspects and congratulated him on hunting down Osama bin Laden.
Two women watch the debate between US President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, October 22, 2012 at a laundromat in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles, California. The focus will likely return to the economy as the two campaign in key battlegrounds expected to decide the election, with the president speaking in Florida and Ohio and Romney heading to Nevada and Colorado.
Romney vowed to press China harder on trade and currency issues but toned down earlier rhetoric, following warnings his approach could spark a trade war.
"We can be a partner with China. We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form," he said, despite his vow to brand Beijing a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency.
Oddly, neither candidate mentioned the eurozone crisis -- widely seen as the country's biggest external economic threat -- aside from Romney reprising his warning that the debt-laden US economy under Obama was "heading toward Greece."
An instant poll by CBS News found that Obama won the debate by 53 percent to 23 percent, after a clash that appeared to polish his leadership credentials and saw him showing the passion missing in his disastrous first debate.
CNN's poll found Obama beat Romney 48 to 40 percent.
Electoral placards supporting US President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are seen near Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 20. Obama is to continue campaigning in Florida, a key swing state.
The president also scored the most Twitter-worthy remark, when he dismissed Romney's claims that he had scaled back the military to a level not seen since the early 20th century.
"You mentioned the navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed," he said, to laughter from the audience.
"We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."
The "horses and bayonets" barb caused Twitter message volume during the debate to hit a peak of 105,767 tweets, the micro-blogging service said.
Economic woes loom far larger than any foreign threat, and it will take several days to gauge whether Monday's clash had any impact on tied up polls.
Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University, said both Obama and Romney had performed well in the debate but that the "ground game" in closely fought states would be decisive.
"We're really down to both sides mobilizing whatever resources they have to get their voters to the polls," he told AFP.
"Oftentimes, it is the person talking to somebody that they know, or somebody in their neighborhood or somebody very similarly situated that can have a decisive influence on whether that person votes in the first place, and how that person votes," he said.
The rivals are effectively tied in national polls after Romney surged following his first debate win in early October and started chipping away at Obama's foundation in the swing states that will decide the election.
"It's still quite up in the air," said Charles Franklin, co-founder of Pollster.com and a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"I think we are, at the moment, close enough that you could imagine a cliffhanger that comes down to a single state's electoral votes."