Obama and Romney prepare for debate duel

Barack Obama vows to put up a fight in his second debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a promise the president will need to keep if he is to overcome his lacklustre, momentum-stalling performance in the candidates' first debate two weeks ago.

Mr Romney will likewise need to turn in a repeat of his strong showing in the initial face-to-face-competition, a performance which propelled him into a virtual tie in nationwide polling.

Mr Obama still hangs on to small leads in many of the nine key swing states that likely will determine which man occupies the White House on Inauguration Day, January 20.

The so-called battleground states - those that do not reliably vote either Republican or Democratic - take on outsized importance in the US system where the president is chosen not by the nationwide popular vote, but rather in state-by-state contests.

The debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, falls exactly three weeks before Election Day in what promises to be one of the closest presidential contests in recent US history.

The November 6 vote takes place against a backdrop of deep partisan divisions among Americans and near political deadlock in Congress.

The president's first act in this critical campaign week was to announce a new battleground state advertisement featuring voters discussing the ways their economic conditions have improved during his term.

The ad was hitting the airwaves as Mr Obama and Mr Romney remained closeted with advisers in debate preparation.

The ad signalled Mr Obama's intention to try to turn the tables on Mr Romney by focusing in part on the economy during the town hall-style meeting in which independent voters will pose questions to the candidates.

The economy is the top issue for voters in this election, and one the Romney camp has long considered a weak point for the incumbent.

But after a dismal stretch where the unemployment rate has remained above 8% across Mr Obama's term, the number fell to 7.8% in the latest report for September.

That is coupled with an improving housing market, increasing consumer confidence and growing numbers of Americans who tell polling organisations that they believe the United States is headed in the right direction.

While the Obama campaign acknowledges there is a good distance still to travel in the recovery from the Great Recession and near financial meltdown in the final months of the George W. Bush presidency, the president now has some positive economic news with which to counter Mr Romney's insistence that he is the stronger candidate, given his long history in the world of private equity.

With early voting already under way in dozens of states, including such battlegrounds as Ohio and Iowa, the candidates will have little time to recover from any missteps.

On Monday, either absentee or in-person early voting had begun in 43 of the 50 states.

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