Republican challenger Mitt Romney performed strongly Wednesday in his first presidential debate, putting Barack Obama on the back foot as he reignited hope in his flagging campaign.
Needing a good showing to turn around some poor poll numbers, the former Massachusetts governor went on the offensive from the get-go, hammering the president for economic policies he said had “crushed” America’s middle class.
Romney played the aggressor throughout the 90-minute encounter and appeared far more at ease in the cut-and-thrust of the debate format, which left Obama seeming at times nervous and irritated, even under-prepared.
Obama jumped on Romney’s lack of specifics as the rivals clashed fiercely on taxes and health care reform, but the president stuttered into several of his more detailed answers, while the Republican was crisper and clearer.
“I’m concerned that the path we’re on has just been unsuccessful,” said Romney, fighting for his political life as he trails in the opinion polls with less than five weeks to go before election day.
“The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago, that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will trickle-down government — would work,” Romney said.
“That’s not the right answer for America. I’ll restore the vitality that gets America working again,” he vowed. “Middle-income families are being crushed, and the question is, how to get them going again.”
Obama hit back by suggesting that Romney would bring in $5.4 trillion in tax cuts, particularly geared towards the wealthy, and said Romney hadn’t been clear about what loopholes in the tax system he would close.
“Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes skewed toward the wealthy and cut back regulations, we’ll be better off. I have a different view,” Obama said, calling for “economic patriotism.”
Romney hit back hard against Obama’s claims as the tax issue sparked the fiercest clashes of the night.
“Virtually everything he said about my tax plan is inaccurate,” the challenger said. “If the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I would say absolutely not.”
Obama clings to a narrow lead in his bid to defy the omens of a stubbornly sluggish economic recovery and to become only the second Democrat since World War II to win a second term.
Romney, down in almost all the key battleground states that will decide who wins the 270 electoral votes needed to win on November 6, sought a sharp change of momentum in a race that seems to be slipping away from him.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Romney won,” Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, told AFP.
“He was more aggressive without being pugnacious or provocative or combative. The president seemed a bit flat. He seemed, I wouldn’t say annoyed at times, but almost disconnected, almost not comfortable.”
Despite the unrest in the Middle East, the debate focused strictly on economic issues. Foreign policy gets its turn in the final of the three presidential debates at the end of the month.
Romney, a multi-millionaire former venture capitalist, was expected to come under scrutiny over his complex offshore tax arrangements, which Democrats have highlighted to press the case that he is indifferent to middle class struggles.
But Obama did not mention these, nor Bain Capital, the controversial Boston firm that Romney co-founded on his way to amassing his huge wealth, nor the most obvious of recent slip-ups by his gaffe-plagued opponent.
The 65-year-old Romney badly needed to reset the election narrative, after a video emerged of him branding 47 percent of Americans as people who pay no taxes and see themselves as “victims” who depend on government handouts.
The 51-year-old president was marking his 20th wedding anniversary on Wednesday and began the debate with a shout-out to First Lady Michelle Obama, apologizing for the unromantic setting.
“Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me,” joked his adversary in a rare moment of levity as the duel began.
Summing up, Romney said that if Obama was re-elected it would usher in an era of falling household incomes and chronic joblessness.
“If the president is re-elected will you see a middle-class squeeze,” Romney said. “You will see chronic unemployment — 43 straight months with unemployment above eight percent.”
Obama had countered with accusations that Romney has no specific plans to create jobs or move the country forward other than the failed Republican policies that he said got the country in trouble in the first place.
“You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man, and I wouldn’t be a perfect president, and that’s probably a promise Governor Romney probably thinks I’ve kept,” Obama said in his conclusion.
“I also promised I would fight every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class and all of those striving. I’ve kept that promise, and if you will vote for me, then I promise I’ll fight as hard in a second term.”
Several national polls released before the debate showed a tight race, with Obama ahead by a few points. Polls of the key swing states that will decide the election give the president a clearer advantage.
Here are some of the key quotes of the night.
Obama: “You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man, and I wouldn’t be a perfect president, and that’s probably a promise Governor Romney probably thinks I’ve kept.”
FEEL THE FEAR
Romney: “No question in my mind, if the president is re-elected you will see a middle class squeeze … You will see chronic unemployment — 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent.”
FLATTERY WILL GET YOU EVERYWHERE
Moderator: “We’ve barely got three minutes left. I’m not going to grade the two of you and say your answers have been too long or I’ve done a poor job.”
Obama: “You’ve done a great job, Jim.”
Romney: “Mr. President, you are entitled to your own airplane, your own house as president, but not to your own facts.”
CHURCH AND STATE
Romney: “That statement says we are endowed by our creator to pursue happiness as we choose … We are a nation that believes we’re children of the same God and we care for those with difficulties.”
Obama: “He now says he’ll replace Obamacare and ensure all the good things in it will be in there … Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they are too good?”
MODERATING THE MODERATOR
Obama: “Now, the last point I would make, before …”
Moderator: “Two minutes is up, sir.”
Obama: “No, I think — I had five seconds before you interrupted me.”
AGAIN WITH THE SARCASM
Obama: “So the question is, does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street (prior to the 2008 financial crisis)? Because, if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate.”
OBAMA FAMILY VALUES
Obama: “My grandmother died three days before I was elected president. She was fiercely independent. Only with a high school education, started as a secretary and ended up being vice president of a local bank.”
ROMNEY FAMILY VALUES
Romney: “Look, I have five boys, I’m used to people saying something that isn’t always true and keep on saying it hoping ultimately I will believe it. That is not the case.”
Obama: “Now, does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money, when they are making money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that? Why wouldn’t we eliminate tax cuts for corporate jets?”
THE PAIN IN SPAIN
Romney: “Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We’re now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don’t want to go down the path of Spain. I want to put more Americans to work.”
Romney: “It’s frankly not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing burdens will be passed on to the next generation and paying interest and principal all their lives.”
Romney: “The president said he would cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it. Trillion dollar deficits for the last four years.”
WHAT’S HE HIDING?
Obama: “Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan, and now five weeks before the election, he says his big bold idea is ‘never mind’.”
THE TRUMP CARD
Obama: “We do have a difference when it comes to definitions of small businesses … Donald Trump is a small business. Donald Trump doesn’t like to think of himself as small anything.”
SACK THE MUPPET
Romney: “I’m sorry Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you too.”