DENVER – In a showdown at close quarters, President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparred aggressively in their first campaign debate Wednesday night over taxes, the deficit and strong steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering national economy. “The status quo is not going to cut it,” declared the challenger.
Obama, in turn, accused his rival of seeking to “double down” on economic policies that actually led to the devastating national downturn four years ago – and of evasiveness on the details of Romney’s proposals for tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.
Both men made frequent references to the weak economy and high national unemployment, by far the dominant issue in the race for the White House. Public opinion polls show Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally, and Romney was particularly aggressive, like a man looking to shake up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.
With a prime-time television audience likely counted in the tens of millions, moderator Jim Lehrer had his hands full trying to enforce time limits on the two rivals. The president occasionally shook his head as Romney talked over Lehrer.
And Romney virtually lectured Obama at one point after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funding: “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts.”
Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, repeal Obama’s health care plan, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits – but he provided no specifics despite Obama’s prodding.
Said Obama: “At some point, the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they’re going to be too good? Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”
At times, the debate turned into rapid-fire accusations and retorts that drew on dense facts and figures that were difficult to follow. The men argued over oil industry subsidies, federal spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses, and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.
Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and did not hesitate to interrupt the president or the moderator.
Despite the wonky tone of the debate, Romney managed to make some points by personalizing his comments with recollections of people he said he had met on the campaign trail. In another folksy reference, Romney told Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS even though “I love Big Bird.”
Generally polite but pointed, the two men agreed about little, if anything.
Obama said his opponent’s plan to reduce all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle income taxpayers.
Shot back Romney: “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.”
The former Massachusetts governor and businessman added that Obama’s proposal to allow the expiration of tax cuts on upper-level income would mean tax increases on small businesses that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands.
The two campaign rivals clasped hands and smiled as they strode onto the debate stage at the University of Denver, then waved to the audience before taking their places behind identical lecterns.
There was a quick moment of laughter, when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama as “sweetie” and noted that it was their 20th anniversary.
Romney added best wishes, and said to the first couple, “I’m sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine – here with me.”
Both candidates’ wives were in the audience. Ann Romney and the first lady embraced before the debate.
The two candidates debated before a television audience likely to be counted in the tens of millions. They will meet twice more this month, and their running mates once, but in past election years, viewership has sometimes fallen off after the first encounter.
Without saying so, the rivals quickly got to the crux of their race – Romney’s eagerness to turn the contest into a referendum on the last four years while the incumbent desires for voters to choose between his plan for the next four years and the one his opponent is advocating.
Romney ticked off the dreary economic facts of life – a spike in food stamps, economic growth “lower this year than last” and “23 million people out of work or stropped looking for work.”
But Obama criticized Romney’s prescriptions and his refusal to raise taxes and said, “If you take such an unbalanced approach, then that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education, … health care for seniors in nursing homes [and] for kids with disabilities.”
Not surprisingly, the two men disagreed over Medicare, a flash point since Romney placed Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan on his ticket.
The president repeatedly described Romney’s plan as a “voucher program” that would raise out-of-pocket costs on senior citizens.
He continued, directly addressing the voters at home: “If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen because this will affect you.”
Romney said he doesn’t support any changes for current retirees or those close to retirement.
“If you’re 60 or 60 and older, you don’t need to listen further,” he said, but he contended that fundamental changes are needed to prevent the system from becoming insolvent as millions of baby boomers become eligible.
Romney also made a detailed case for repealing “Obamacare,” the name attached to the health care plan that Obama pushed through Congress in 2010. “It has killed jobs,” he said, and argued that the best approach is to “do what we did in my state.”
Though he didn’t say so, when he was governor Massachusetts passed legislation that required residents to purchase coverage – the so-called individual mandate that conservatives and he oppose on a national level.
Romney also said the president’s health care plan would cut $716 billion from Medicare over the next decade.
The president said the changes were part of a plan to lengthen the program’s life, and he added that AARP, the senior citizens lobby, supports it.
Lehrer gave the first question to Obama and the last word to Romney.
Five weeks before Election Day, early voting is under way in scattered states and beginning in more every day. Opinion polls show Obama with an advantage nationally and in most, if not all, of the battleground states where the race is most likely to be decided.
That put particular pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.
Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a turnaround that hasn’t materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he took office.
The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, Nassau County, and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Vice President Biden and Ryan have one debate, next Thursday in Danville, Ky.