›› Photos: 2012 presidential debate at University of Denver
DENVER -- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney rhetorically charged at President Barack Obama in their first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesdayin a clash that was notable for Romney's aggressiveness and Obama's reluctance to engage in a direct fight.
Like a bull to a matador, Romney time and again turned toward Obama to deliver attacks on the president's job performance, portraying him as clueless to his policies' impacts and hopeless in trying to turn the economy around.
And time and again, Obama looked at moderator Jim Lehrer or directly into the camera -- to the viewers at home -- in responding, painting Romney as secretive about his plans and unwilling to admit their true cost.
Helpless to contain the clash, Lehrer was frequently verbally overrun.
National political observers -- journalists, consultants and politicians -- tended to agree: Obama got
From the opening moments, Romney signaled his intent to go directly at Obama.
"Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried," he said during one of the first exchanges of the debate. "They're just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing."
Obama accused Romney of hiding the true cost of his plans. Romney's tax cuts would cost the federal budget $5 trillion in revenue. To pay for them without increasing the deficit, Obama said, would mean deep spending cuts to programs people care about in education, health care and other areas. He said it was unrealistic for Romney not to consider tax increases to balance spending cuts.
"We're going to have to make some decisions," Obama said. "And if we're asking for no revenue, then that means that we've got to get rid of a whole bunch of stuff."
Throughout the rest of the debate, Romney peppered his remarks with verbal jousts.
On the government's role in the economy: "What we're seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it's not working."
On health care: "It's expensive. Expensive things hurt families."
On the federal budget deficit: "The amount of debt we're adding, at a trillion (dollars) a year, is simply not moral."
Obama went barb-for-barb on occasion with Romney. In one exchange, Romney said his tax plan would lower taxes on the middle class without adding to the deficit. Obama criticized that as mathematically impossible, and then accused Romney of backing away from earlier proposals.
"For 18 months he's been running on this tax plan," Obama said. "And now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big, bold idea is, 'never mind.'?"
But, more commonly, Obama sought to defend his policies and speak directly to voters, looking straight into the TV camera while doing so.
In defending efforts to tighten financial regulations: "Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?"
In criticizing Romney for not including more details of his plans in messages to voters: "The American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans É secret because they're too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?"
In his defense, Romney said he would be flexible in how he accomplished his goals and not straitjacketed by rigid proposals. "My experience as a governor is if I come in and lay down a piece of legislation and say, 'It's my way or the highway,' I don't get a lot done," he said.
After the debate, as both parties' spin machines whirred, Romney supporters said their guy had won the night.
"You saw a CEO versus an academic," said U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "You saw an academic try to explain away four years of failure, and a CEO explain a vision of getting this country back to work."
Obama supporters countered that their candidate had provided a sober explanation of his policies that would appeal to the public if not the punditry.
"President Obama did what he needed to do," said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., "which was explain how his policies are going to grow the economy and keep the middle class solid for the next four years."
At 7 p.m. sharp, Romney and Obama walked onto the red-and-blue bedecked stage at the University of Denver's Magness Arena and shook hands.
It was the moment of the campaign so far: The national showdown scaled down to two men in dark suits. After months of jabbing and criticizing and even mocking each other on the stump -- 1,352 days since Obama took office, 489 days since Romney announced his candidacy -- this was the first time in the campaign they had looked each other in the eyes.
Romney seemed to enjoy the combativeness of the debate. At one point early in the debate, Lehrer said, exasperatedly, "Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, we're way over our first 15 minutes."
"It's fun, isn't it?" Romney responded.
Obama seemed more ruffled by the sometimes unruly nature of the debate. When Lehrer one time told Obama he had run over his response time, Obama responded, "Sorry."
There were no such apologies between the candidates.
In a rare instance of speaking directly to Romney, Obama said: "The magnitude of the tax cuts that you're talking about, Governor, would end up resulting in severe hardship for people, but more importantly, would not help us grow."
Romney, though, appeared ever ready to sting back. He said Obama had mischaracterized his plans and his statements.
"Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts," Romney said.
His tax plan, he said, would reduce taxes on small businesses, giving them more money to hire workers and helping the economy to grow. The argument that tax cuts would lead to spending cuts, he said, was a false connection.
"The revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes," Romney said. "That's how we get growth and how we balance the budget."
The debate ended with a composure that belied the combat of the previous 90 minutes.
Obama made an appeal to voters to continue the work he started in his first term.
"I promised that I'd fight every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class, and all those who were striving to get into the middle class," he said. "I've kept that promise and if you'll vote for me, then I promise I'll fight just as hard in a second term."
Romney, meanwhile, cast the election as a fork-in-the-road choice for Americans.
"There really are two very different paths that we began speaking about this evening," Romney said. "And over the course of this month we're going to have two more presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate. We're talk about those two paths."