Barack Obama and Mitt Romney: A battle of wits – but who’ll have the last laugh?

Obama and Romney return to the campaign trail after light relief at charity dinner

After a brief interlude of humour, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney yesterday returned to the crucial business of the election now barely a fortnight away, campaigning in battleground states and readying themselves for their third and final debate on Monday.

While presidential opponents rarely show much affection for each other, personal relations between Mr Obama and Mr Romney - if the venomous exchanges of their last debate are anything to go by - are especially scornful. But the animosity was put aside on Thursday evening as both donned white ties in Manhattan to attend the traditional Alfred Smith Memorial Dinner, a fundraising event for Catholic charities.

With Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York sitting between them, the two traded jokes, some aimed at their opponent, some at themselves. Making fun of his wealth, Mr Romney kicked off by noting that "It's nice to finally relax and wear what Ann and I wear around the house." Mr Obama responded in kind, making fun of his limp performance in his first match-up with his Republican challenger.

"As some of you may have noticed, I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had during the first debate. I also learnt that there are worse things that can happen to you on your [wedding] anniversary than forgetting to buy a gift."

But other quips were more barbed. "Earlier I went shopping at some stores in Midtown [Manhattan]. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown."

Pointing to the rich audience assembled for the event, Mr Romney joked about Mr Obama: "You have to wonder what he's thinking - so little time, so much to re-distribute".

Yesterday though it was back to the campaign trail slog, in a race that remains neck-and-neck, and that will be decided by a handful of swing states. Mr Romney was in Florida, where polls put him ahead by a whisker, while Mr Obama was in Virginia, where he holds an equally slender lead of perhaps two or three per cent.

At his rally in Fairfax, in Washington suburbs, the president focused on women's issues, from jobs to abortion, in tacit recognition of the gains Mr Romney appears to have made among female voters. These have eaten into Mr Obama's previously massive advantage in a key part of the electorate, and partly explain why the contest is now so close, analysts say.

Today, however, both candidates go into political purdah, as they prep up for Monday's debate in Boca Raton, Florida, which will deal with foreign policy - relations with China and Russia, the crises in Syria and over Iran's nuclear programme, but above all the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, last month, in which four Americans were killed.

Mr Romney has repeatedly criticised the administration's apparent failure to provide proper security for the mission despite warnings of trouble, and its shifting explanations of precisely what happened. Mr Obama predictably rejects that interpretation of events.

During an appearance by Mr Obama on The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart contended that even he would admit his administration's coordination and communication had not been 'optimal.' The president replied: "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. We're going to fix it. All of it."

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