Mitt Romney aggressively challenged President Barack Obama in their first debate, seeking to recharge his campaign after weeks of setbacks, while a subdued incumbent largely passed up chances to attack a rival he said was hiding his full plans.
“I just don’t know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people,” Romney said, referring to the health-care overhaul the president championed. “It has killed jobs.”
Working to present a moderate image to undecided voters and calm anxiety about his candidacy in Republican circles, the former Massachusetts governor offered no new specifics about his proposals on tax cuts, government regulations or health care. When Obama pressed him on that point during the debate, Romney accused the president of mischaracterizing his plans.
“You may keep referring to it as a $5 trillion tax cut, but that’s not my plan,” Romney said at one point. Later, sparring with Obama over the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, Romney responded to the president with: “That’s just not the facts.”
Obama said Romney’s tax and health-care proposals would harm the middle class, and that voters should be concerned about the lack of details available to them before the election.
“At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?,” Obama said as the debate turned to the 2010 health care law. “Is it because that somehow, middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”
For a fact check on last night’s debates, click here.
Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan observers said Romney had delivered a performance that might give him a boost with fence-sitting voters, refuting some of the most damaging arguments against his proposals while appearing equal to the job of the presidency as he took his first turn opposite Obama.
“Romney dispatched the caricature, but he also heightened, I believe, the perception of his competence,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “The Obama performance was adequate, but not as strong.”
The Republican nominee this morning called the debate “a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country.” Speaking to a gathering of the Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee in Denver, he repeated his characterization of Obama’s vision as “trickle-down government,” and said the status quo would see the country continue down the road to become “more like Europe.”
The first of three matchups this month between Romney and Obama came as recent polls have put the incumbent ahead. Republicans came away encouraged about their candidate’s post-debate prospects.
“For the first time, Mitt Romney framed this election on his terms: ‘It hasn’t worked under Obama; here’s how I’ll make it work if you elect me,’” said Republican strategist Keith Appell. “This is what voters want to hear, and I suspect he will get a bounce out of his performance.”
David Plouffe, Obama’s top political strategist, said the president accomplished his goals, putting a “testy” Romney on the defensive and appearing “more steady.”
Obama “pursued this vagueness argument against Romney very aggressively,” said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist who isn’t affiliated with the campaign. Still, he said Obama had been too careful “not to appear defensive.”
“He came into this debate with some ideas about things he didn’t want to do, and I would like to see him just go for it and not try to modulate himself,” Carrick said.
From the start, Romney made a point of rejecting Obama’s characterizations of his policy proposals, particularly Obama’s assertion that he is proposing a $5 trillion tax cut that would primarily benefit the wealthy.
Obama said Romney has proposed individual income, investment and corporate tax cuts that nonpartisan analysts have estimated would reduce federal revenue by $5 trillion, and that his proposed method of financing the cuts -- curbing or eliminating deductions or exemptions for high earners -- doesn’t come close to offsetting that cost. He called Romney’s plan “top-down economics,” in which “middle-class families are burdened further.”
The Republican argued his tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit, lower the share paid by high earners or raise taxes on middle-class people. “I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut,” he said.
That drew an incredulous response from Obama, who said: “For 18 months, he’s been running on this tax plan and now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is ‘Never mind.”
On the issue of Medicare, Romney didn’t dispute Obama’s assertion that Republicans would transform the government health program for the elderly into a voucher program.
“That’s for future people, right, not for current retirees,” Romney said, interrupting.
Obama, looking into the camera to speak directly to voters watching at home, responded, “So if you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen, ’cause this will affect you.”
Obama and Romney were both working to appeal to a small yet crucial group of persuadable voters who either haven’t yet decided on their presidential choice or could still be moved to change their minds.
Obama twice mentioned his plan to hire an additional 100,000 math and science teachers, and Romney said he too values “great schools, great teachers.”
The president highlighted a provision in his health-care law that requires insurers to cover people with pre-existing health conditions, noting that Romney’s plan wouldn’t guarantee such coverage.
“Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan,” Romney said. His proposal would guarantee such coverage only for people who have continuously been insured in the past.
Obama also touted his actions to help make college more affordable and charged that Romney would reduce such assistance -- something the Republican denied.
Romney did make one memorable promise as he discussed his determination to cut spending to reduce the U.S. debt.
“I love Big Bird,” Romney said, adding that he would nonetheless end government funding for public television that airs “Sesame Street” among other popular programs.
Related slideshow: Digital Heckling With Bayonets, Binders and Big Bird
“Overall, Mitt Romney made some gains here,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who conducted a focus group of women during the debate. Romney largely captured the support of undecided voters, he said, rather than winning backers of Obama to his side.
“It looks like he may have done some consolidation of the independents who lean Republican; it’s not clear how far it goes beyond that,” he said.
Dan Schnur, who worked on Republican Senator John McCain’s 2000 Republican presidential bid and directs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California said Romney’s performance, “if nothing else, stops the spiral his campaign has been dealing with.”
“This is chance for voters to see a more flushed out version of him,” Schnur said. “That doesn’t magically win him the election, but it certainly helps get things back on track.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com