Denver • President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered competing visions Wednesday night of how they would lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, each promising voters in a combative first debate that he had a better plan to create jobs, reduce the deficit and move the nation forward.
The president and Romney tangled forcefully over taxes, with each candidate claiming to offer the most help to improve the lives of the middle class. Obama implored Americans to have patience as the economy improves and he warned against changing course midstream, while Romney said it was time for new ideas and leadership in the White House.
“Are we going to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess,” Obama said, “or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says, ‘America does best when the middle class does best?’”
A boisterous campaign that has played out through dueling rallies and a steady stream of commercials, took a starkly serious turn as the candidates stood at facing lecterns for the first time. Romney directly accused the president of distorting his policies. “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate,” he declared.
For the first part of the debate, the two candidates commandeered the stage, taking control away from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, as they kept trying to rebut each other. At times, the moderator seemed as if he had left the stage, a result of new rules that were intended to allow for a deeper and more freewheeling conversation.
“You’ve been president four years. You’ve been president four years,” Romney said at one point, ticking through a list of promises that he said Obama had not lived up to. Drawing contrasts with the president’s approach, he said, “Middle-income families are being crushed.”
The tenor of the discussion underscored the seriousness of the issues facing the United States, particularly the rising debt burden. The sharp exchanges often sounded academic, with Romney and Obama delivering a blizzard of statistics.
In the opening half of the debate, Obama sought to link Romney to former President George W. Bush, pointing to the tax cuts he signed. For his part, Obama sought to link himself to the economic policies of President Bill Clinton.
Romney pushed back against the Democrats’ arguments that he is proposing a form of “trickle-down” economics that would benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. He accused Obama of supporting “trickle-down government.”
The debate, which was held at Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, was the first of three face-to-face encounters between Obama and Romney. The 90-minute encounter took place a little more than a month before Election Day, though voters across the country are already casting early ballots.
Colorado and its nine electoral votes are central to the strategies of both candidates, but particularly to Romney. His aides acknowledge that Ohio has become a bigger challenge than they had anticipated, increasing the importance of Colorado and other battlegrounds in the quest to win 270 electoral votes.
The president, who carried Colorado four years ago, is working hard to win the state again. Democrats have steadily narrowed a Republican advantage in voting registration, but about 40 percent of the statewide electorate is not affiliated with either party, creating an opening for Romney and Obama to make their arguments in the debate.
For the past six months, since the moment Romney emerged as the winner of the Republican nominating fight, the two candidates and their respective campaigns in Boston and Chicago have traded charges and countercharges. But a month after the political conventions ended, Obama appears to hold the upper hand in the race and Romney arrived at the debate with the goal of changing the dynamic of the campaign before views harden even further.
Those views have been partly shaped by a relentless barrage of commercials from Obama and the super PAC that supports him, Priorities USA Action, which has painted Romney as a heartless businessman whose policies would benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class.
Romney’s supporters were hopeful that he would erase that impression with a good performance that addressed the desire of undecided voters — as stated in polls and in focus groups — to hear more about his case for why they should fire Obama and hire him instead.
Both campaigns acknowledged that the race is close enough that the first debate had the capacity to reorder a contest that has recently seemed to been tilting in Obama’s favor, in spite of continued economic hardship throughout the nation and a slower recovery than he promised four years ago. The nation’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, with an even higher rate in the battleground states of Nevada, Florida and North Carolina.
With Romney’s campaign putting so much stock in the idea that the debate could give him the lift he needs, anticipation for him was especially high. His aides had been radiating great confidence leading up to the debate, but by Wednesday the expectations for the night had risen to such high levels that advisers to both candidates worried that they might be unable to meet them.
The debate was designated by the Commission on Presidential Debates to focus on domestic issues. It was designed to be less rigid than previous presidential debates, with candidates given six segments of 15 minutes each.
Obama arrived in Denver on Wednesday afternoon after spending three days preparing for the debate in Nevada with Sen, John Kerry, D-Mass., who played the role of Romney in practice sessions. And in the hours before the debate, Romney went through final preparations with Sen. Rob Portman, R- Ohio, playing the role of Obama.
With Republicans fighting to win control of the Senate, party leaders and donors were watching the presidential race carefully to see where to devote the final burst of energy and resources in the closing month of the race.
The candidates prepared for a clash over the nation’s debt, taxes, Medicare, health care and job creation, with middle-class voters a targeted audience for both sides. The campaigns have been light on specifics. Nonpartisan analysts say Romney’s plans are more difficult to judge because he has offered little detail on his fiscal plans, particularly which tax breaks would go away in his administration.
For all the time and attention that campaigns and journalists shower upon the debates, it remains an open question what influence they will have on the race. The debates started a week later than they did four years ago, and the rising importance of early voting means that millions of Americans will have already cast their ballots before the third debate on Oct. 22 in Florida. The second debate is Oct. 16 in New York, with the lone vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 in Kentucky.
With their first debate behind them, the president was set to hold a rally Thursday morning in Denver before flying to Madison, Wis., for an evening campaign stop. Romney was scheduled to fly to Virginia in hopes of winning over voters and energizing Republicans in that battleground state.