CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday ridiculed challenger Mitt Romney's debate description of receiving "binders full of women," while the GOP nominee said the incumbent's policies have failed female voters.
The two bounded out of their quarrelsome Tuesday night debate on an intensified search for voters who will swing the election, with a particular focus on women.
Democrats criticized Romney's answers during the debate on gender pay equity and how he recruited women to his administration as governor of Massachusetts. Romney said he 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."
The comment became an instant trend on social media networks, spawning parodies and its own accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Obama piled on, telling Iowa voters: "We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented women." He reminded them that the first bill he signed into law was pay equity legislation named after Lilly Ledbetter that Romney did not support.
Romney argued that he has the answer for women who want better schools and job opportunities.
"Why is it that there are 3.6 million more women in poverty today than when the president took office?" Romney asked at a rally in Chesapeake, Va. "This president has failed America's women."
Polling on the women's vote has been mixed, with some surveys showing Romney erasing Obama's advantage since their first debate two weeks ago and others showing Obama maintaining a lead.
To reach out, Obama spoke with his sleeves rolled up to expose a pink rubber bracelet in honor of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. GOP running mate Paul Ryan was introduced in Ohio by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and both talked about how women have been hurt by the economy under Obama. Both campaigns filled risers behind their rally podiums with female supporters so they would dominate television shots of the candidates addressing the crowd.
The Democratic National Committee held a conference call with reporters to dispute Romney's telling of his female recruitment efforts as governor. Jesse Mermell, former executive director of the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP), said Romney did not request the resumes after he was elected in 2002 but that the group approached his team to encourage more women appointments to senior positions.
Mermell said Romney displayed "a 1950's `Mad Men' attitude" toward women.
"Mitt Romney's general attitudes are stuck in the past," she said. "His comments last night could not have been more condescending or more out of date."
In a competing conference call organized by the Republican National Committee, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte argued Romney "had a phenomenal track record as governor of recruiting and getting terrific women to lead with him."
"It seems like the whole focus of the Democrats on the binder issue is because they don't want to talk about the issues that really matter to all voters. All issues are women's issues," she said, citing the economy, debt, national security and the recent violence in Libya.
"Women care about that too," Ayotte said.
Romney also quietly began airing a new TV ad suggesting he believes abortion "should be an option" in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.
The ad is an appeal to women voters, who polls show have favored Obama throughout the race although Romney has been making gains among them. Romney supported abortion rights as Massachusetts governor but now says he opposes abortion with limited exceptions. His campaign didn't announce the ad, but it began running on debate night on stations that reach Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Romney traveled with comedian Dennis Miller, and singer Lee Greenwood warmed up his crowd in southeast Virginia. Vice President Joe Biden was westward bound for Colorado and Nevada.
The candidates debated Tuesday night as if their political lives depended on it - because they do. It was a re-energized Obama who showed up at Hofstra University, lifting the spirits of Democrats who felt let down by the president's limp performance in the candidates' first encounter two weeks ago.
He won over Cedar Rapids pediatrician Pat O'Grady, 50, an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 but was unhappy with the president's health care law. O'Grady said he was considering a switch to Romney before the debate.
"It's kind of sad how both politicians have to lower themselves to the lowest level," O'Grady said. "It wasn't pretty. But I guess you have to be tough. I'm glad Obama was more engaged this time."
The debate was a pushy, interruption-filled encounter full of charges and countercharges that the other guy wasn't telling the truth. The candidates were both verbally and physically at odds in the town hall-style format, at one point circling each other on center stage like boxers in a prize fight.
"I thought it was a real moment," Biden told NBC's "Today" show in a taped interview aired Wednesday. "When they were kind of circling each other, it was like, `Hey, come on man, let's level with each other here.'"
One of the debate's tensest moments came when Romney suggested Obama's administration may have misled the public over what caused the attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month that killed four Americans. The issue is sure to continue to be debated next week at the third and closing debate, focused on foreign policy and scheduled for Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
"As the facts come out about the Benghazi attack we learn more troubling facts by the day," Ryan told "This Morning" on CBS. "So that's why need to get to the bottom of this to get answers so that we can prevent something like this from ever happening again."
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Ryan J. Foley in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Nancy Benac and Matthew Daly in Washington and Beth Fouhy in New York City contributed to this report.