An aggressive President Obama accused challenger Mitt Romney of peddling a "sketchy deal" to fix the U.S. economy and playing politics with the deadly terrorist attack in Libya in a Tuesday night debate crackling with energy and emotion just three weeks before the election.

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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged Tuesday in one of the most intensive clashes in a televised presidential debate, with tensions between them spilling out in interruptions, personal rebukes and accusations of lying as they parried over the last four years under Obama and what the next four would look like under a President Romney.

Competing for a shrinking sliver of undecided voters, many of them women, the rivals’ engagements at times bordered on physical as they circled each other or bounded out of their seats while the other was speaking, at times more intent to argue than to address the questions over jobs, taxes, energy, immigration and a range of other issues.

Obama, criticized by his own party for a lackluster debate performance two weeks ago, this time pressed an attack that allowed him to often dictate the terms of the debate, though an unbowed Romney was there to meet him every time.

Obama accused Romney of peddling a “sketchy deal” to fix the U.S. economy and playing politics with the deadly terrorist attack in Libya.

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Romney pushed back hard, saying the middle class “has been crushed over the last four years” under Obama’s leadership and that 23 million Americans are still struggling to find work.

Portraying himself as a plausible alternative for struggling Americans, Romney declared: “We don’t have to live like this.”

Obama critiqued Romney for his opposition to the Obama administration’s automobile bailout in his first answer — “Gov. Romney said we should let Detroit go bankrupt” — and ended more than 90 minutes later with an attack on Romney’s secretly taped comments about the “47 percent” of Americans whom he said did not take responsibility for their own lives.

“When he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility — think about who he was talking about,” Obama said at the end of the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Questions came from undecided voters from the New York City area selected by the Gallup Organization. CNN’s Candy Crowley, the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate, regularly followed up the participants’ questions and candidates’ answers with questions of her own, pressing for more detail.

Romney credited Obama for being “great as a speaker and describing his vision.” But then he said: “That’s wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn’t been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need.”

The two took pains to fashion their arguments toward female voters, with the debate seeming at times as if they were speaking only to them. Obama mentioned Romney’s vow to cut government funding for Planned Parenthood at least four times; Romney repeatedly mentioned that under Obama: “There are three and a half million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office.”

And Romney sought to soften his image, saying: “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”

At times the back-and-forth was personal in small ways. Having already invoked the 14 percent effective tax rate that Romney personally paid, Obama mentioned Romney’s investment in Chinese companies. Then Romney asked if Obama had looked at his own pension for its investments.

“I don’t look at my pension,” Obama said. “It’s not as big as yours.”

But at other moments the verbal sparring took on a deeper, emotional resonance, such as when Romney suggested that the administration was intentionally misleading in its shifting explanations for the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the deaths of the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans there.

“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said, standing and looking intently at his opponent. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president.”

Obama noted that he had gone to the Rose Garden the day after the attack to say “this was an act of terror.”

Romney asserted that Obama had not said that until 14 days later, prompting Crowley to interject, “He did in fact, sir.” Obama interjected, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”

The vitriol that has been coursing through the campaign for months, in television commercials and dueling speeches, played out at exceptionally close range for much of the 90-minute debate.

The exchanges were intense and personal, with Obama and Romney repeatedly leaving their stools and invading each other’s space on the stage.

“If I could have you sit down, Gov. Romney,” Crowley said at one point. “Thank you.”

But while Romney was on the defensive for much of the debate, his arguments were built around a theme he returned to again and again: the Obama administration’s record and its failure to restart the economy. He used a litany of statistics to make his case that the economy has not improved and that the president has not lived up to his pledges.

At least a half-dozen times, Romney said that 23 million Americans are out of work. The two tangled over tax policy, health care and spending, delivering what have become familiar arguments at this late stage in the campaign, but they also covered new ground under questioning from an audience of undecided voters. One woman said she was disappointed by Obama, but worried that Romney would return to policies of the Bush administration.

In blunt terms, Romney distanced himself from President George W. Bush, criticizing him for leaving behind a rising budget deficit, failing to deal aggressively on trade with China and favoring big businesses over small ones.

“President Bush and I are different people,” he said, “and these are different times.”

Crowley, the moderator, defied the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates — negotiated by the two campaigns — pressing the candidates for a follow-up after the very first question.

A question about the nation’s immigration laws prompted one of the longest exchanges between the men, with Romney pointing out that the president did not meet his promise of achieving comprehensive immigration legislation during his first term.

“This is a president who has not been able to do what he said he’d do,” said Romney, who pledged to pass an immigration overhaul in his first year as president, a sharp departure from his anti-immigration tone in the Republican nominating fight one year ago.

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