Romney goes on offense in first debate with Obama
DENVER - Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney took the offensive in the first presidential debate Wednesday night, forcing President Obama to defend his record in a series of sharp exchanges in which Romney charged that the president's economic policies have "crushed" the middle class.
Appearing more vigorous than he often is on the campaign trail, Romney painted Obama's first term as a time of rising poverty, slowing economic growth and struggle for millions of Americans. He pushed his own plans to lower taxes and bring down the federal deficit, saying his approach would revive the sputtering economy.
"Gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up," Romney said. "Health-care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed."
"Look at the evidence of the last four years. It's absolutely extraordinary," he said. "We've got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work in this country . . . economic growth this year slower than last year, and last year slower than the year before."
"Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today," the former Massachusetts governor said, prompting a frown from Obama.
The president appeared on the defensive at times over his record, but he emphasized the problems he inherited from the George W. Bush administration and tried to link himself to the more popular tenure of fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. He said the steps he took - which included his administration's economic stimulus plan and the auto industry bailout it oversaw - brought the nation back from the brink of economic ruin.
"When I walked into the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion-dollar deficit greeting me," Obama recalled. "And we know where it came from: two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.
"And despite that," the President added, "what we've said is, yes, we had to take some initial emergency measures to make sure we didn't slip into a Great Depression."
Obama accused Romney of seeking to return to failed Republican economic policies through an economic plan he characterized as a "five trillion dollar tax cut" for the wealthy.
"The approach he's talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surpluses to deficits, and it culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," the President added.
The candidates also clashed over how entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare should be reformed, how the nation's debt should be brought down and whether Obama's controversial healthcare reform program, which he agreed to call "Obamacare," was a wise idea.
Reciting familiar arguments that the program will increase costs and give too much power to un-elected government boards, Romney said he would repeal Obama care if elected. "In my opinion, the government is not effective in bringing down the cost of almost anything," he said. "The right answer is not to have the federal government take over health care."
Obama pointed to Romney's health care plan from when he was Massachusetts governor as a model for his own program, which he said would reduce costs and insure millions of uninsured Americans. "When Obamacare is fully implemented, we're going to be in a position to show that costs are going down," the President said. "Governor Romney says we should replace it. . .but the problem is, he hasn't decided what exactly we're going to replace it with."
For much of the first of three debates, the two candidates stuck to their familiar talking points in what marks a critical moment in an often contentious campaign that is focusing on a small slice of undecided voters in a few key battleground states.
Obama began his first answer by wishing his wife, Michelle, a happy anniversary, drawing a chuckle from Romney. "Twenty years ago I became the luckiest man on the earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me," Obama said. "I just want to wish, you, sweetie, happy anniversary.
The president, answering a question about jobs, the pivoted to his broader message about the difficult economy he inherited, the steps he has taken to fix it and his belief that more work needs to be done.
"Four years ago, we went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said. "Because of the resilience and determination of the American people, we have begun to fight our way back."
Romney began by trying to humanize himself, a vital effort for a candidate who polls have shown suffers from a likability gap compared to the President. "This is a very tender topic," he said about the nation's high unemployment rate, relating several stories people he met on the campaign trail who have asked him to help.
The former Massachusetts governor then listed his familiar 5-point plan for reviving the economy, which includes making America energy independent and balancing the federal budget. "And the answer is, yes we can help but it's going to take a different path, not the one we've been on," Romney said.
As the debate progressed, the candidates hammered home other familiar themes in a series of generally polite yet sharp exchanges.
The debate is the first time that millions of television viewers were sizing up the candidates side by side - an incumbent president, weighed down by a sluggish economy, and his Republican challenger, battling to turn around a campaign that has struggled in recent weeks.
The 90-minute encounter at the University of Denver is especially critical for Romney, who vanquished all rivals in the Republican primaries but has run an uneven general election campaign. The race remains close in a number of national polls, including the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, which showed Obama ahead 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters. But surveys in the critical battleground states, expected to decide the election, show Obama with a larger lead.
Romney, trying to make the case that his business experience can turn around an economy that has struggled under Obama, will have his chance as the debate progresses: economic issues are expected to play a key role. The debate will be divided into six blocks of 15 minutes each, and PBS NewsHour Executive Editor Jim Lehrer, who is moderating, chose these topics for the six blocks: economy, economy, economy, health care, the role of government and governing.
The session, perhaps the most important single event of the campaign, takes place amid a modern political culture that values social media and micro-targeting of voters. Yet the presidential debate moment of the campaign is a political tradition that harkens back five decades. Ever since the legendary 1960 encounter between a tense looking Richard Nixon and a relaxed John F. Kennedy, presidential debates - while they have rarely decided elections - have provided viewers with heated exchanges and memorable television moments.
The two current candidates are veterans on the debate stage: Romney took part in 19 debates during the Republican primaries this year, while Obama took on Hillary Clinton in a series of closely watched battles in the 2008 Democratic primaries. The president, however, has not debated since his last encounter with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his 2008 Republican rival.
After a campaign that has featured bitter exchanges and a slew of negative ads, the debate comes after the candidates mostly focused Wednesday on preparing for their moment under the television lights. Romney met with his strategy team at his Denver hotel Wednesday morning, then had a private tour of the debate hall before heading back to his hotel. His pre-debate meal was a barbecue sandwich and spaghetti from the Cheesecake Factory.
Romney is also planning to deliver a major foreign policy address Oct. 8 in Virginia, a senior campaign official said. The speech comes about a month after a wave of deadly protests swept the Middle East, killing Americans at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya.
After Wednesday's face-off, the candidates are scheduled to debate again 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 will square off Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Ryan will watch tonight's debate on television with his aides, while Biden is scheduled to hold a live discussion with supporters that will be streamed online after the debate.