DENVER (AP) — In a showdown at close quarters, an aggressive Mitt Romney sparred with President Barack Obama in their first campaign debate Wednesday night over taxes, deficits and strong steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering national economy. "The status quo is not going to cut it," declared the Republican challenger.
Democrat Obama in turn accused his rival of seeking to "double down" on economic policies that actually led to the devastating national downturn four years ago — and of evasiveness when it came to prescriptions for tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.
With early voting already under way in dozens of states, Romney was particularly assertive in the 90-minute event that drew a television audience likely to be counted in the tens of millions — like a man intent on shaking up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.
He seemed at ease in debate with the man who has been in the White House for four years. "It's fun, isn't it?" Romney said. In a rare post-debate concession, some Democratic strategists not involved in the campaign conceded the president was not at his best and missed opportunities to challenge his rival.
The former Massachusetts governor virtually lectured Obama at one point after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funds. "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts," he said.
The economy dominated the evening, as it has the race for the White House all year. Pre-debate opinion polls showed Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally.
Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, overhaul the tax code, repeal Obama's health care plan and replace with a better alternative, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits — but he provided no new specifics despite Obama's prodding.
Said Obama: "At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good? Because middle class families benefit too much? No."
The two men debate twice more this month, but they were first going their separate ways on Thursday. Obama had campaign stops in Colorado and then Madison, Wis., while Romney was booked into Virginia. All three states are among the nine battlegrounds likely to settle the race.
At times the debate turned into rapid-fire charges and retorts that drew on dense facts and figures that were difficult to follow. The men argued over oil industry subsidies, federal spending as a percentage of the GDP, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.
Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and didn't hesitate to interrupt the president or moderator Jim Lehrer, who seemed to struggle to maintain control.
The wonky tone of the debate was a stark contrast to the harsh, broad-brush and sometimes personal attacks the two men make in person and in multimillion-dollar television advertising. Obama made no mention of Romney's videotaped remark that 47 percent of the country doesn't pay income taxes and believe themselves to be victims, entitled to government benefits. And Romney did not repeat a key theme from his national convention, that Obama's "you didn't build that" statement was a putdown of American initiative.
At the same time, Romney managed to make some points by personalizing his comments with recollections of people he said he had met on the campaign trail. In another folksy reference, Romney told Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS even though "I love Big Bird."
Generally polite but pointed, the two men agreed about little if anything.
Obama said his opponent's plan to reduce all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle income taxpayers.
Shot back Romney: "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate."
The former Massachusetts governor and businessman added that Obama's proposal to allow the expiration of tax cuts on upper-level income would mean tax increases on small businesses that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands.