MOUNT VERNON, Iowa—Speaking publicly for the first time since his second national debate with Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama—who began a campaign swing here in a small college gym—joked about his "improving" performance on the debate stage with the Republican nominee.
"Now, as many of you know, we had a second debate [Tuesday] night. You know, I'm still trying to figure out how to get the hang of this thing, debatin'," Obama said before a crowd of about 2,800 people, most of whom were students. "But we're working on it. We'll keep on improving as time goes on. We've got one left."
The third and final debate with Romney will be held in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday and will focus on foreign policy. Obama's first debate in Denver, Colo., earlier this month was widely considered a win for Romney, but on Tuesday night Obama appeared significantly more alert and aggressive with his challenger.
The gym where Obama spoke on Wednesday was sweltering. Attendees waved campaign signs that read "FORWARD" in front of their faces while giant fans blew in cool air from the open door. When Obama walked onstage, the sleeves on his oxford shirt were rolled up, his collar was unbuttoned and a tie hung loosely from his neck. The scoreboard on both sides of the gym read "2012."
The president's remarks, often interrupted by cheers and shouts of support, included several swipes at his rival. He criticized Romney for his "five-point" economic plan, calling it a "one-point plan" in which the wealthy can "play by their own set of rules," and he chastised Romney for not providing more details about his tax reform plan.
"Here's a tip," Obama said. "Usually when a politician tells you he's going to wait until after the election to explain a plan to you, they don't have a pleasant surprise in store."
He later poked fun at Romney for saying at Tuesday night's debate that he was provided "whole binders full of women" when he sought to hire more females on his staff while governor of Massachusetts, a line that has sparked hundreds of parodies on the Internet.
"I've got to tell you, we don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented women ready to learn," Obama said while promoting the hiring of women in the fields of math and science.
In a move late in his speech that may rattle conservative critics who accuse Obama of supporting a "government takeover of health care" through a health insurance overhaul, Obama argued that "I don't think your boss should control the health care you get. I don't think insurance should control the health care you get. I certainly don't think politicians should control the health care that you get."
"We passed Obamacare—yeah, I like the term, because I do care—and I want to put these choices in your hands where they belong," he continued.
The president also has a stop planned on Wednesday afternoon in Athens, Ohio, a crucial state that both candidates are working furiously to lock down on Election Day.