President Barack Obama fought back and Republican challenger Mitt Romney mostly stood his ground in a bruising, argumentative debate three weeks before Election Day.
With a third and final debate to go, both candidates appeared likely to secure their standing in an already tight race that portends a cliffhanger presidential vote.
On Wednesday, both campaigns will continue their focus on battleground states considered crucial to winning the White House.
Obama heads to Iowa and Ohio and Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Colorado and Nevada, while Romney will go to Virginia and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan stops in Ohio.
Tuesday night saw Obama bring the desired energy sought by worried Democrats after the president's lackluster performance in the first encounter two weeks ago.
This time, a forceful Obama defended his policies and challenged Romney on shifting positions on key issues while arguing his Republican rival's proposals would favor the wealthy if elected on November 6.
Romney repeatedly attacked Obama's record, saying millions of unemployed people and a sluggish economic recovery showed the president's policies had failed.
A snap CNN/ORC International poll indicated that 46% of respondents thought Obama won, compared to 39% for Romney. The result was within the survey's margin of error, and responses to other questions showed the overall impression was generally positive for both candidates.
After the first debate on October 3 in Denver, a similar poll showed Romney scored a solid victory in the eyes of more than 60% of respondents.
"Most improved -- that award goes to Barack Obama," CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen said, comparing the president's performance on Tuesday to his previous showing. "I think he had a much stronger debate tonight."
Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, who called Obama's poll numbers after the first debate "devastating," predicted the president would come "kicking back in the polls" in coming days.
Erick Erickson, the conservative RedState.com blogger and CNN contributor, thought Romney won the debate based on "clear majorities outside the margin of error" in the CNN/ORC poll who thought Romney would be better for the country on economic issues.
Read the transcript of the debate or watch it on CNN.com
"In fact, while other areas of the debate may overshadow this point, Romney deftly dispatched Obama on his economic record," Erickson said, calling it "the one issue that matters."
An awkward phrase by Romney in addressing gender pay inequality was creating the most buzz around the debate.
Romney said when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, all the applicants for cabinet positions were men, so he sought out women applicants. "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."
Before the debate was over "binders full of women" had a Twitter hashtag, a series of memes on Tumblr, and a Facebook page with over more than 100,000 fans. The phrase was the third-fastest rising search on Google during the debate.
Both candidates walked the floor with microphones in hand at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, raising their voices at times and repeatedly challenging each other's points during the 90-plus minute debate that featured a town hall-style format.
Moderator Candy Crowley, the CNN chief political correspondent, tried in vain at times to prevent each candidate from going over allotted time, with Obama speaking for more than three minutes longer than Romney on the night.
Obama was on the attack from the start, but waited until his final answer -- with no chance for Romney to respond -- to raise his opponent's controversial "47%" comments at a fundraiser in May.
In remarks made public by a secretly recorded video of the event, Romney described 47% of the country as people dependent on government aid who refused to take personal responsibility.
"Think about who he was talking about," Obama said, listing people on Social Security "who've worked all their lives," veterans "who've sacrificed for this country," students, soldiers and "people working hard every day."
The president said he wanted to fight for those people "because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds."
Earlier, Obama went after Romney's five-point economic plan that the GOP candidate repeated two times during the second debate, saying it really was a one-point plan "and that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules."
Romney shot back that "if you elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get -- you're going to get a repeat of the last four years."