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Aggressive Romney spars with Obama in first debate

Associated Press Modified: October 3, 2012 at 11:17 pm •  Published: October 3, 2012
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The two campaign rivals clasped hands and smiled as they strode onto the debate stage at the University of Denver, then waved to the audience before taking their places behind identical lecterns.

There was a quick moment of laughter, when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama as "sweetie" and noted it was their 20th anniversary.

Romney added best wishes, and said to the first couple, "I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me."

Both candidates' wives were in the audience.

Without saying so, the two rivals quickly got to the crux of their race — Romney's eagerness to turn the contest into a referendum on the past four years while the incumbent desires for voters to choose between his plan for the next four years and the one his rival backs.

Romney ticked off the dreary economic facts of life — a sharp spike in food stamps, economic growth "lower this year than last" and "23 million people out of work or stropped looking for work."

But Obama criticized Romney's prescriptions and his refusal to raise taxes and said, "if you take such an unbalanced approach then that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education ... health care for seniors in nursing homes (and) for kids with disabilities."

Not surprisingly, the two men disagreed over Medicare, a flash point since Romney placed Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket.

The president repeatedly described Romney's plan as a "voucher program" that would raise out-of-pocket costs on seniors.

He continued, directly addressing the voters at home: "If you're 54 or 55 you might want to listen because this will affect you."

Romney said he doesn't support any changes for current retirees or those close to retirement.

"If you're 60 or 60 and older you don't need to listen further," he said, but he contended that fundamental changes are needed to prevent the system from becoming insolvent as millions of baby boom generation Americans become eligible.

Romney also made a detailed case for repealing Obamacare, the name attached to the health care plan that Obama pushed through Congress in 2010. "It has killed jobs," he said, and argued that the best approach is to "do what we did in my state."

Though he didn't say so, when he was governor Massachusetts passed legislation that required residents to purchase coverage — the so-called individual mandate that conservatives and he oppose on a national level.

Romney also said that Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare over the next decade.

The president said the changes were part of a plan to lengthen the program's life, and he added that AARP, the seniors lobby, supports it.

With a two-minute closing statement, Obama said he had spent his first four years in office fighting for those in the middle class and those seeking to make it there. "If you'll vote for me, I'll fight just as hard in my second term," he said.

Romney was as critical of Obama's tenure as he was the moment the two men walked onto the stage.

If the president is re-elected, he predicted continued economic trouble for the middle class, chronic unemployment, higher costs for health insurance and "dramatic cuts to the military."

Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a turnaround that hasn't materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he took office.

The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate 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 have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Both men have already begun holding practice sessions.

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Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report. David Espo reported from Washington.