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Analysis: No big moment as debate remains substantive

First Published Oct 03 2012 09:45 pm • Last Updated Oct 03 2012 09:45 pm

Denver • From the first question, Mitt Romney was on the attack.

So was Barack Obama.

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In the first of three debates, the two presidential candidates both spoke 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. At times, they interrupted one another or talked at the same time.

Romney ripped the president’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 of them in the University of Denver arena. "But it’s going to take a different path, not the one we’ve been on."

Obama, who seemed a bit stiff at the beginning, warmed up as he hammered Romney for a tax proposal he said didn’t add up and defended the Affordable Care Act for its most popular provisions, including protecting those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The two men laid out fundamentally different visions for the role of government and the nation’s path 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 Lincoln.

There didn’t seem to be an embarrassing gaffe or a single sharp exchange that defined the evening.

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Romney 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. "I’ve been in business 25 years," he said at one point. "I have no idea what you’re talking about."

And Obama again and again raised questions about whether Romney’s numbers added up and whether 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 expressed incredulity.

"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 Office.

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 spending levels, on the costs of the proposals each has made, on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts and Obama’s record as president.

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, giving no quarter when challenged by the president.

Obama, 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. At times, he looked annoyed at being challenged and at having his record depicted in the most negative terms.

After Obama vowed to reduce the federal budget deficit in his second term, Romney told him: "You’ve been president four years."

One small sign that indicated which side was more eager to discuss the face-off: Republican surrogates flooded the "spin room" to tell reporters afterward their candidate had prevailed. Democratic surrogates didn’t show up until precious minutes later.

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