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Since the Democratic National Convention last month, polls show Obama has opened a narrow lead nationwide and a bigger one in such swing states as Ohio and New Hampshire. Romney has been forced to do damage control over release of a secretly recorded video of him telling a Florida fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government, think they are victims, and that it was "not his job" to worry about them.
If Obama could be satisfied with a draw, Romney went into the race needing to shake things up.
As with every presidential debate, the two candidates were poised to seize on a sharp exchange, the memorable quip or the opponent’s gaffe that could lead the news accounts afterward and define the evening for voters. Still, for this particular debate, there was also the possibility of exploring the considerable differences between the candidates on how they would spur growth and their views on the role of government in the 21st century.
Even though the two sides effectively have been campaigning against one another for most of the year, the vast majority of ads have been negative and the points of attack often an ill-considered comment by the other guy, sometimes taken out of context — from Obama’s "you didn’t build that" to Romney’s "I like to fire people."
The candidates and their running mates continue to provide fuel for those fires. The latest: Vice President Biden’s comment at a rally this week that the middle class has been "buried" by economic woes for the past four years. (That would be during Obama’s first term.)
But the length of the debate, the relatively unstructured format and the focus on four broad topics were designed to encourage a substantive discussion — with varying degrees of success.
For 90 minutes, standing side by side, the two contenders were slated to discuss various aspects of the economy for 45 minutes, then health care, governing and the role of government for 15 minutes each.
The ideological divide between Obama and Romney on dominant questions of the day — this year, it’s the economy and its slow climb out of recession — is as wide as it has been in any presidential election in more than a generation. That gulf was apparent in the discussion of issues from health care to the deficit to tax policy.
That was a point both men referred to in their closing statements. "Four years ago, we were going through a major crisis," Obama said. "The question now is, How do we build on those strengths?"
Romney, who got the last word, said a second Obama term would lead to more economic problems. He said the candidates offered "two very different paths," adding, "They lead in very different directions."
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