1:38AM EST October 4. 2012 - DENVER -- From the first question, Mitt Romney was on the attack.
So was Barack Obama.
during their 90-minute encounter, the first of three presidential
debates, the Democratic president sometimes seemed annoyed and defensive
while his Republican challenger was energetic, focused and relentlessly
on message. Romney ripped Obama's record on the economy with a tone
calculated to convey more sorrow than anger.
He told the stories
of individuals who have come up to him and his wife, Ann, at campaign
events asking for help in getting a job or saving their home from
foreclosure. "Yes, we can help," he said, looking straight into the
camera, speaking to the millions of voters watching from their homes,
not the hundreds in the University of Denver arena. "But it's going to
take a different path, not the one we've been on."
hammered Romney for tax proposals he said didn't add up and economic
policies he said would benefit the wealthy and damage the middle class.
He defended the Affordable Care Act for its most popular provisions,
including protecting those with pre-existing medical conditions. But he
never raised that secretly recorded video in which Romney described 47%
of Americans as "victims" who are dependent on the government and he
never pressed Romney on his record as head of Bain Capital — both issues
his campaign has pushed.
When it was over, it was clear which
side was more eager to talk about the debate. Republican surrogates
immediately flooded the media center. The Democratic ones didn't follow
until several minutes later, and they left while the other side stayed
In a serious, rapid-fire discussion, the two men laid out
fundamentally different visions for the role of government and the best
way to lead the nation to prosperity.
"Free market and free
enterprise are more effective in bringing down costs than anything,"
Romney said in the discussion of health care. "The private market and
individual responsibility always works best."
Obama talked about
the responsibilities of citizens to one another and described spending
on education and other programs as an investment that in the end spurs
growth and jobs. "The federal government can't do it all, but it can
make a difference," he said in an exchange in which he extolled Abraham
There wasn't an embarrassing gaffe or a single sharp
exchange that defined the evening, as there sometimes is with
again and again reminded voters of their economic woes and blamed
Obama's policies for contribution to slow job growth, increasing
poverty, home foreclosures. He questioned Obama's economic competence.
"Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the
American people who are struggling today," Romney charged as Obama
And Obama again and again raised questions about whether
Romney's numbers added up and if his policies would work, saying his tax
proposals would explode the deficit and benefit the wealthy. When
Romney disputed that, saying he wouldn't reduce the tax burden on the
wealthy or approve tax cuts that increased the deficit, the president
"Now four weeks before the election, he is
saying his big, bold plan is: Never mind," Obama said. He accused Romney
of proposing to "double down" on economic policies that contributed to
the economic meltdown that greeted him four years ago in the Oval
In other words, Romney cast the election as a referendum
on Obama's first term in office. Obama cast it as a choice between his
plans and those of his opponent.
Much of the discussion was a
festival for fact-checkers, a dizzying competition of numbers on tax
policy, on the costs of the proposals each has made, on Romney's record
as governor of Massachusetts and Obama's tenure as president.
men talked fast, tried to hold the floor and often ignored the
entreaties of moderator Jim Lehrer to respond to his specific questions
or to move on to the next topic. At times, they interrupted and talked
over one another.
But Romney showed the value of the 19 debates he
participated in during the GOP primaries and the extended practice
sessions he has scheduled in recent weeks. He seemed relaxed and
conversational, repeatedly referred to individuals he had met on the
campaign trail, and gave no quarter when challenged by the president.
in contrast, hadn't debated since the last of his three encounters with
John McCain four years ago. Not since then has he faced an opponent on a
level playing field — the podium in front of him not even adorned with
the presidential seal. He understandably didn't seem to relish have his
record challenged in a direct way presidents rarely face.
After Obama vowed to reduce the federal budget deficit in his second term, Romney told him, "You've been president four years."
Galston, an adviser to President Clinton and other Democrats and who is
now at the Brookings Institution, said Romney "did himself considerable
good" in the debate. "I would not be surprised to learn that a majority
of the American people think he won it outright," Galston said in an
e-mail. "I suspect that over the next week, the public opinion surveys
will show a significant narrowing of the gap between President Obama and
his re-energized challenger."
"He crushed it," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said of Romney. "Most people came away seeing a Mitt Romney they hadn't seen before."
Romney had never participated in a debate in which the audience was so large and the stakes so high.
the Democratic National Convention last month, polls show Obama has
opened a narrow lead nationwide and a bigger one in such swing states as
Ohio and New Hampshire. If Obama could be satisfied with a draw, Romney
went into the race needing to shake things up.
The debate offered
a more substantive discussion of the two candidates' proposals than
much of the campaign to date. Even though the two sides effectively have
been campaigning against one another for most of the year, the vast
majority of ads have been negative and the points of attack often an
ill-considered comment by the other guy.
Wednesday night, they
explored the considerable differences between them on how they would
spur growth and their views on the role of government in the 21st
century. The length of the debate, a less rigid format than in previous
elections and the focus on four broad topics were designed to encourage a
The ideological divide between Obama and
Romney on dominant questions of the day — this year, it's the economy
and its slow climb out of recession — is as wide as it has been in any
presidential election in more than a generation.
On that, at least, the two contenders seemed to agree.
years ago, we were going through a major crisis," Obama said in his
closing statement. "The question now is: How do we build on those
Romney, who courtesy of a coin toss got the last word,
said a second Obama term would lead to deeper economic travails. The
two candidates offer "two very different paths," he said. "They lead in
very different directions."