Mitt Romney said President Barack Obama favors a form of “trickle-down government” with more taxes and regulations, as the Republican nominee pressed his case in their first campaign debate.
“That’s not the right answer for America,” Romney, 65, said of Obama’s policies last night at the University of Denver.
Obama, 51, said Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, backed plans that would favor the wealthy, resulting in what the president called the type of “top-down economics” that led to the recession he inherited upon taking office in 2009.
“The approach that Governor Romney’s talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003,” Obama said, referring to tax cuts enacted under Republican President George W. Bush.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, the first of three matchups this month, Romney attempted to paint Obama as a big-government Democrat while Obama said his challenger’s proposals favored the rich at the expense of the middle class. Obama, who has had the edge in recent polls, also repeatedly pushed Romney to detail his plans for replacing Obama’s programs.
“Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?” Obama said. “Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”
An instant poll for CNN showed Romney’s attacks may have hit their target most often -- 67 percent of registered voters who watched the debate said Romney won, compared with 25 percent who picked Obama. Also, 35 percent said the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney, while 18 percent said that of Obama and 47 percent said the encounter wouldn’t affect their decision.
The survey of 430 registered voters had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Moderator Jim Lehrer devoted about half of the debate to the economy, with the remainder touching on health care, the role of government and governing. One of the more heated exchanges came over what both Romney and Obama called “Obamacare,” the 2010 law that requires Americans to have health insurance and revamped the U.S. medical system.
Romney pointed to the law as an example of overreach, saying it will end up raising costs for Americans while reducing their choices of health plans. Obama countered that the plan was modeled on one passed in Massachusetts during Romney’s tenure.
“We’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts,” Obama said. “People are covered there.”
Romney said the plan was right for his state only and had gotten broad bipartisan backing there, while Obama had to depend only on Democratic lawmakers in Congress to get his legislation passed.
“You pushed through something that you and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was the best answer,” Romney said. Pelosi, a California Democrat, was the U.S. House speaker when the law passed; Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has been the Senate majority leader since 2007.
More than 50 million people likely tuned in to the debate, based on past viewership. Romney went into the debate looking to remake his image as a candidate who can connect with Americans and bolster the economy. Obama had to defend his record as U.S. unemployment hovers above 8 percent.
The two candidates clashed over whether the federal budget deficit can be tackled without also raising taxes. Obama said Romney’s policies would result in a $5 trillion tax cut --mainly helping the wealthy -- that would end up hurting the middle class as taxpayers pick up “the tab.”
“Math, common sense and our history shows us that’s not a recipe for job growth,” Obama said. He also pressed Romney to detail how he would change tax loopholes and deductions.
Romney said his tax-cut proposals wouldn’t add $5 trillion to the deficit because his plans to close loopholes and reduce deductions would keep the share of taxes paid by high-income people steady.
“Look, I’ve got five boys,” Romney said. “I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case, alright? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.”
Romney said he would lower spending by reducing federal subsidies for programming such as shows on PBS, the public television station that’s home to Lehrer. Romney said he would make the cuts even though, “I love Big Bird,” referring to the station’s popular Sesame Street program, and “like you too,” referring to Lehrer.
Obama charged that Romney was planning to turn Medicare into a “voucher program.” After Romney said that plan would only affect future beneficiaries, Obama shot back, “So if you’re 54 or 55 you might want to listen because this will affect you.”
Romney, a co-founder of Boston-based Bain Capital LLC, has focused his campaign largely on the economy, arguing that Obama’s policies have failed. Romney often tells voters that his time in the private sector means he knows how to create jobs.
The U.S. jobless rate has remained stuck at or above 8 percent since February 2009, a record stretch of high unemployment dating back to 1948, when figures began being compiled. Still, Obama got a boost last week, when preliminary Labor Department revisions showed that more jobs had been created than lost since he took office.
Public confidence is also starting to turn around. A Sept. 21-24 Bloomberg National Poll found that Americans by 43 percent to 33 percent see themselves as better off under Obama’s tenure. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen more than 15 percent this year as of yesterday’s close.
“We all know that we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Obama said.