President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney practiced for their second debate as the economy posted another set of positive numbers just over three weeks from Election Day.
The stakes for Tuesday's town-hall debate at Hofstra University on New York's Long Island are particularly high given Romney's commanding performance and Obama's lackluster showing in their first encounter — followed by tightening national polls.
After months of firing up core supporters, the two candidates are focusing on undecided voters and independents.
The weak economy has been a compelling issue for Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan.
But recent statistics show slow but steady improvements — including Monday's report that Americans stepped up their spending at retail businesses in September.
It follows an earlier report showing unemployment falling to 7.8 percent, dipping below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office.
That put some wind at his back. And it places the GOP ticket in the delicate position of stressing economic weaknesses amid strengthening numbers.
"We are on the wrong track," Ryan insisted Monday.
Campaigning in home state Wisconsin, Ryan decried the government's "mountain of debt" approaching $16.2 trillion — up from a $10.7 trillion national debt when Obama took office.
Yet some recent improvements have occurred there, too.
The deficit in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 inched down to $1.1 trillion from $1.3 trillion the year before. While it's the fourth straight year of trillion-plus shortfalls, it was better than projected. Government tax revenues increased as more people got jobs and received income.
Obama prepped for the debate at a resort in Williamsburg, Va. Romney did likewise near his Massachusetts home.
Vice President Joe Biden, who aggressively debated Ryan last Thursday, cancelled campaign appearances in Nevada to attend Tuesday's funeral services in Pennsylvania for former Sen. Arlen Specter.
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