GWEN IFILL: Just 20 days to go until the election, the presidential campaign moved on today. With debate number two in the books, instant polls gave President Obama the edge.
MITT ROMNEY (R): I'm still speaking.
And the answer is, I don't believe people think that is the case because I'm...
That wasn't a question.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: OK.
MITT ROMNEY: That was a statement.
GWEN IFILL: Fresh off a feisty second debate that saw the president and former governor get up close and personal, the two rivals returned to the campaign trail today to take aim at each from afar. The president flew to Iowa, where he told supporters that Romney's debate performance raised serious questions about his economic plan.
BARACK OBAMA: So let's recap what we learned last night. His tax plan doesn't add up. His jobs plan doesn't create jobs. His deficit reduction plan adds to the deficit.
So, Iowa, everybody here's heard of the New Deal. You have heard of the fair deal. You have heard of the square deal. Mitt Romney's trying to sell you a sketchy deal.
BARACK OBAMA: We are not buying it.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Romney headed to another battleground state, Virginia, where he said the president failed to explain why he deserves a second term.
MITT ROMNEY: Don't you think that it is time for him to finally put together a vision of what he would do in the next four years if he were elected?
He has got to come up with that over this weekend, because there is only one debate left on Monday.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MITT ROMNEY: 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. And the American people want some real answers and a real agenda. And that's why Paul Ryan and I are going to become the next president and vice president of the United States.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Both candidates appealed to women voters today, picking up where they left off last night, when one of the town hall voters asked where they stand on pay equity.
The president pointed to his 2009 signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as an example of his support for women.
BARACK OBAMA: And that's an example of the kind of advocacy that we need, because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family.
This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that's why we've got to fight for it.
GWEN IFILL: Romney touted his record as Massachusetts governor, where he said he went out of his way to recruit women for his Cabinet.
MITT ROMNEY: And I went to my staff, and I said, "How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men?"
They said, "Well, these are the people that have the qualifications." And I said, "Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?"
And -- and so we -- we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our Cabinet.
I went to a number of women's groups and said, "Can you help us find folks?" And they brought us whole binders full of women.
GWEN IFILL: That last remark immediately touched off a string of parodies among Democrats and on social media.
In Iowa, while talking about the need for more math and science teachers, President Obama joined in.
BARACK OBAMA: I have got to tell you, we don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women ready to learn and teach in these fields right now.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BARACK OBAMA: And when young women graduate, they should get equal pay for equal work. That should be a simple question to answer.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Romney sought to turn the tables today in Virginia.
MITT ROMNEY: Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office? This president has failed America's women. They have suffered in terms of getting jobs. They have suffered in terms of falling into poverty.
This is a presidency that has not helped America's women.
GWEN IFILL: The candidates also sparred last night over abortion rights and weather contraception should be covered by insurance.
BARACK OBAMA: He suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage. That's not the kind of advocacy that women need.
When Gov. Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care -- they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings.
GWEN IFILL: Romney didn't respond directly on the funding of Planned Parenthood, but as recently as last week, he said it would be on the chopping block.
The president, Romney said, mischaracterized his position. Providing contraception coverage, he said, shouldn't be required under the health care law.
MITT ROMNEY: I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not.
Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And -- and the -- and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.
GWEN IFILL: During the primary campaign, Romney supported ultimately unsuccessful legislation to allow any employer with moral objections to opt out of providing access to birth control.
The candidates face off one more time next Monday in Florida.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So what happens next for the men vying for the presidency?
We take a closer look now with political reporter Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, and Julie Pace, who covers the White House for the Associated Press.
Welcome to you both.
Let's talk first about how these campaigns feel that they did last night.
Julie, to you first. What was it that the president's team wanted to accomplish, and do they think they were successful?
JULIE PACE, The Associated Press: Well, the mission for the president's team was pretty simple. It was have a better debate than the first time around. They really practiced with the president on being more aggressive, on being more pointed in his criticism of Mitt Romney.
And in talking to aides, both last night on the debate site and again today, they really think that he did accomplish this mission.
They feel very positive, very upbeat. It is a very different mood around the Obama campaign today than it was after the last debate. We still have to see what the actual impact of this is long-term for the last three weeks of this campaign.
But in terms of the mood right now among the Obama campaign, it is a far different atmosphere than it was after the first debate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen, would you add anything to that? And what about the Romney folks? What did they want to accomplish and how do they feel?
KAREN TUMULTY, The Washington Post: Well, I think what they wanted to do was to build on the momentum that they were getting out of that first debate, not to lose any of that energy.
And I think that Gov. Romney just sort of was there to parry back every point. They disputed every point, as the energy answer, where one of them -- up was up and down was down, and they were throwing out statistics so fast.
I think both camps came away convinced that their own supporters are energized and excited. But I don't know whose minds would have been changed by last night's debate.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie, what about this focus, all this focus and talk today about women voters? What is it that these -- and, again, you're dealing with the Obama campaign for the most part -- What is it that they need to say that they haven't been saying already to women voters?
JULIE PACE: A lot of what you hear from the president's aides and from Democrats who are close to this campaign is that there was some concern after the first debate that Gov. Romney presented a softer tone, a bit more moderate tone, and perhaps appeared more appealing to undecided women.
And that is a big point of concern for Obama supporters, because Obama has long had this advantage with women. So what they really wanted to do was to show women voters, particularly undecideds in battleground states, that this is the same guy that you have known.
They wanted to talk about his positions on things like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, his position on abortion rights and contraception access.
And they wanted to paint Mitt Romney as somebody who is outside the mainstream, and tell women that if you're hearing him give more moderate positions now on women's issues, that that is Romney just hiding from his positions from earlier in the GOP primary.
And, again, this all comes down to battleground states. If you look at a state like Colorado, suburban women outside of Denver, those are the swing voters that both of these campaigns are going after. So, that's why you're seeing so much focus on women. You're going to see that straight through the end of this, for sure.
KAREN TUMULTY: You know what I was struck by, first of all, the polling does suggest that they're -- some polls suggest there has been some slippage from the president among women voters. Those are primarily white women and highly educated affluent white women.
And so I was really struck by the degree to which the president aggressively promoted some of the things that he has done, like contraceptive coverage, actually, his economic issues, as health care reform as an economic issue, to really sort of try to weave his entire agenda into the economy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So it was that transparent in a way?
KAREN TUMULTY: I really do think -- I cannot recall him being, again, this assertive to sort of put all of this into a bigger picture for his agenda.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what about in the Romney -- in the Romney camp, Karen? What do they feel? They must feel they have made some headway based on -- as you say, some of the polls that show progress among women.
What more do they need to do to -- what message do they need to get across to these women?
KAREN TUMULTY: I think it just comes down to closing the deal, to convincing people that the next four years under Barack Obama are not going to be any better than the last four years are.
And so, once again, we had Mitt Romney promoting his own abilities, his business background, and basically he kept saying over and over and over again, I know how to do this.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie, we heard Mitt Romney, he kept bringing it back to the economy and jobs, and saying, if we can get the economy going, that is going to help women.
How do the Obama folks counter that?
JULIE PACE: The economic discussion in the Obama campaign is really interesting right now, because obviously the president's economic record has had a lot of ups and downs, and perhaps more downs than ups over the past four years.
But what they have started to see in private polling and in public polling is that mood of the country on the economy is shifting slightly. And it is becoming a bit more positive.
So, we have seen the president start to embrace more fully -- and you just touched on this -- his economic record and how his policies also relate to the economy than we have perhaps earlier in the campaign.
One reason for this is you just can't simply run away from the issue that is at the top of voters' minds in this election.
The other part is what we do see with voters feeling a little more confident. They want those voters to say, I'm feeling more confident because of policies that the president has put in place, not because of anything that has happened for any other reason or not because of anything that I think Mitt Romney might do in his term.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Karen, with now less than three weeks left, what is your sense of these campaigns? And let's start with Romney. What do they feel they have got to do right now? Clearly, the ground game, getting their vote out. But beyond that, what do they need to be saying and where do they need to be?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I do think -- I think that this last debate is going to be a big one. They're all big ones.
This one, we saw the beginning of what I think is going to be a big argument next Monday night over Benghazi. It is interesting that Mitt Romney has chosen to attack the president in an area that is -- was considered a great area of strength for him and is. He is going into the commander in chief's territory.
So, I think this is going to be a big moment and, again, I just think pounding away at the competence argument.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And one last thing, Julie. There was some reaction, I think, maybe especially among women, to fact that these men were so going at it, in each other's faces last night.
Is there any concern on the part of the Obama camp that that may be turning voters off, especially women voters?
JULIE PACE: No one is saying that today. They're still really on a high from this debate.
But you do hear some rumblings of that, particularly from folks right outside the campaign. I was in the debate hall last night, and there was one moment in particular where you saw these two men really start to walk towards each other. And there was a face-to-face confrontation there.
We wrote in our story today that these were two alphas facing off. And that's really what it felt like. So if you're a woman out there, how do you react to that? We talked to some women voters today who said it did seem a little overly aggressive, it did seem a little over the top.
I think that there is a sense, though, that these are two men who are really in a tough political fight, both fighting for their political lives, and that's what you saw on stage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen, a final thought on that?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, the other argument that Mitt Romney made last night was, he continued not only his drift to the center, but also this argument, I'm different. I thought one of the most interesting answers was when he was asked, what is different about you from George W. Bush?
And again I think that he is not only softening, but trying to convince people that he is in fact a different model of Republican, because Barack Obama was essentially trying to hang all the Republican policies on the past around Mitt Romney's neck.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we have only got, what, five days, six days until the next debate?
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see what happens then.
Karen Tumulty, Julie Pace, thank you both.
JULIE PACE: Thank you.