First debate sets up moment of high-risk theater

Romney, Obama spar over jobs, taxes, def icits

Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 2:46 PM
Last updated Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 12:17 AM
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DENVER — In a showdown at close quarters, President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred aggressively in their first campaign debate Wednesday night over taxes, deficits and strong steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering national economy.

President Obama listens as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Denver during their first presidential debate. They debate twice more this month.  RICK WILKING/ASSOCIATED PRESS
RICK WILKING/ASSOCIATED PRESS
President Obama listens as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Denver during their first presidential debate. They debate twice more this month.

“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 led to the devastating national downturn four years ago – and of evasiveness when it came to prescriptions for tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.

The economy dominated the evening, as it has the race all year. Pre-debate opinion polls showed Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally.

With early voting already under way in dozens of states, Romney was particularly aggressive in the 90-minute event, which drew a television audience likely to be counted in the tens of millions – like a man hoping to shake up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.

The former Massachusetts governor lectured Obama after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funds.

“Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts,” he said.

Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, overhaul the tax code, repeal Obama’s health care plan and replace it with a better alternative, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits – but he provided no new specifics.

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.”

The men debate twice more this month, but they first go their separate ways today. Obama has campaign stops in Colorado and Madison, Wis., while Romney is booked into Virginia. All three states are among the nine battlegrounds likely to settle the race.

At times the debate turned into rapid-fire charges 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 GDP, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.

Obama seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was assertive and didn’t hesitate to interrupt the president or moderator Jim Lehrer.

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.

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.

Romney shot back: “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.”

The 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 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.

Without saying so, the two rivals quickly got to the crux of their race – Romney’s eagerness to turn the contest into a referendum on the past four years while the incumbent desires for voters to choose between his plan for the next four years and the one his rival backs.

Romney ticked off the dreary economic facts of life – a sharp 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 Ryan on his ticket.

The president repeatedly described Romney’s plan as a “voucher program” that would raise out-of-pocket costs on seniors.

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 boom generation Americans 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 that Obamacare 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 seniors lobby, supports it.

With a two-minute closing statement, Obama said he had spent his first four years in office fighting for those in the middle class and those seeking to make it there. “If you’ll vote for me, I’ll fight just as hard in my second term,” he said.

Romney was as critical of Obama’s tenure as he was the moment the two men walked onto the stage.

If the president is re-elected, he predicted continued economic trouble for the middle class, chronic unemployment, higher costs for health insurance and “dramatic cuts to the military.”

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 customary security blended with a festival-like atmosphere in the surrounding area on a warm and sunny day. The Lumineers performed for free, and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am delivered a pep talk of sorts to Obama’s supporters. School officials arranged to show the debate on monitors outside the hall for those without tickets.

There was local political theater, too, including female Romney supporters wearing short shorts and holding signs that said, “What War On Women?” – a rebuttal to claims by Obama and the Democrats.

The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Both men have already begun holding practice sessions.


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