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Obama bounces back to show his angry side

PRESIDENT Barack Obama persistently attacked Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a critical debate, offering a striking contrast from his listless performance two weeks ago that appeared to damage his re-election prospects.

Mr Obama blasted Mr Romney's economic plans as damaging to the middle class and accused him of flip-flopping on issues such as energy and gun control.

He appeared angry -- a rare emotion seen in the famously cool Mr Obama -- when Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, criticised his response to the deadly attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi last month.

He pointedly told Mr Romney that any suggestion that his administration "would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do".

The stakes of the town hall-style debate at Hofstra University, just outside New York, could not have been higher. With just three weeks to go before Election Day, the race is locked in a dead heat and many Americans are already casting ballots in states that allow early voting.

The open-stage format, with no physical objects between them, placed incumbent and challenger face to face and, when they chose, directly in each other's faces. Their physical encounters crackled with energy and tension, and the crowd watched raptly as the two sparred while struggling to appear calm.