DENVER — After months of long-distance sparring, President Obama and Mitt Romney attacked each other face to face Wednesday during the first presidential debate on a wide range of domestic issues from taxes to the deficit to health care.
Obama assailed Romney’s plans to cut taxes and spending as a financial burden for the middle class. Romney, in turn, said the country cannot afford four more years of an anemic economy.
But what was not expected, perhaps, was the style of the debate — a fast-moving series of punches and counterpunches in which Romney emerged as an aggressor from the beginning, appeared well-prepared, and showed an on-stage confidence that had been missing in some of his debates during the Republican primaries.
Obama, by contrast, appeared halting at times and did not seem to parry his opponent with the same relish that the former Massachusetts governor brought to the stage at the University of Denver. Romney’s aggressive stance reflected his need to quickly reverse his postconvention decline in swing state polls.
The debate was notable for what was not said. Obama did not mention Romney’s tenure at the helm of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Democrats have assailed as creating wealth at the expense of jobs.
Neither did the president bring up Romney’s controversial remarks, captured secretly at a private fund-raiser, that 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims” and that “government has a responsibility to care for them.”
Instead, each candidate used the biggest audience of the campaign to push his economic arguments as the better way to create jobs and to criticize the other’s as faulty and ill-conceived.
Obama said that Romney’s proposal to cut massive amounts of federal spending by closing tax loopholes and ending deductions is based on faulty “arithmetic” and would raise taxes on middle-class families.
“Governor Romney’s proposal . . . calls for a $5 trillion tax cut . . . and he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions,” Obama said.
“The problem is that he’s been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn’t been able to identify them.”
Later, Obama said, “I think math, common sense, and our history shows us that’s not a recipe for job growth. Look, we’ve tried this. We’ve tried both approaches. The approach that Governor Romney’s talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said.
Romney countered that Obama’s proposals to raise upper-income taxes would destroy 700,000 jobs in small business, and that burdensome regulations are hurting America’s goal of energy independence.
Romney also shot back that he has never asked for a $5 trillion tax cut over 10 years, and that he would not propose any tax cut that adds to the deficit.
He appeared exasperated when Obama continued to repeat the $5 trillion figure. At one point, in an exchange about education, Romney interjected: “Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own fact.”
Romney and Obama also disagreed vigorously over the federal deficit, and whether taxes should be raised to solve the problem.
Obama said revenue increases had to be part of the solution, and he chided Romney for saying during the Republican primary contest that he would not trade $10 in spending cuts for $1 in new revenue.
“Budgets reflect choices,” Obama said. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to make some decisions. And if we’re asking for no revenue, then that means that we’ve got to get rid of a whole bunch of stuff . . . [that] would end up resulting in severe hardship for people.”
Romney responded: “You raise taxes, and you kill jobs.”
Instead, Romney said, he would attempt to expand the economy and increase the number of taxpayers, providing more government funds as a result.
“Look, the revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes,” he said. “That’s how we get growth and how we balance the budget.”
Romney also said he would more drastically cut programs.
“Obamacare’s on my list. I apologize, Mr. President,” Romney said.
“I use that term with all respect, by the way.”
“I like it,” Obama replied. Later, he added, “I have become fond of this term, Obamacare.”
The candidates clashed further over health care, a subject that has long bedeviled Romney as he attempts to tell voters why he opposes a federal law that was based on the Massachusetts law he signed as governor.
“What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation, state by state,” he said. “The federal government taking over health care for the entire nation and whisking aside the 10th Amendment, which gives states the rights for these kinds of things, is not the course for America to have a stronger, more vibrant economy.”
Obama countered by saying, “The irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model.”
Maybe Republicans in Congress, Obama said, could take advice from Democratic legislators in Massachusetts about how they fashioned that state’s law.
The debate began on a light note, with Obama wishing his wife a happy 20th anniversary. He motioned to her in the front row and promised that they would not celebrate their next anniversary before 40 million people.
Romney joked to Obama that “this is the most romantic place you could imagine” on your anniversary: “Here with me.”
The 90-minute debate was moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor of PBS NewsHour.
Obama maintains a slim advantage in many national polls — 49 to 47 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey — but his growing advantage in several swing states means that Romney’s pitch that he is best suited to turn around the economy must resonate soon.
Before the debate, Romney spent much of the day at his hotel on the outskirts of Denver, about 20 minutes from the university.
Eric Fehrnstrom, his press secretary, said Romney set aside some “briefing time” with his staff, was “very relaxed,” and spent the remainder of the day with his wife, Ann, and other family members.
The debate was Romney’s 20th in this presidential campaign, but all of the others were against multiple opponents in the Republican primaries. Obama had not been in a debate since 2008, when he faced off against John McCain.
Obama arrived in Denver on Wednesday afternoon after spending three days of debate practice in Henderson, Nev., where he secluded himself at a resort outside Las Vegas that was hit hard by the housing collapse.
The candidates did not plan to rest after the debate. Obama was scheduled to speak at a campaign event in Denver on Thursday morning and address a rally in the afternoon at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Romney planned to fly to Virgina, where he was scheduled to speak at Fishersville with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.