DENVER – Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have been trading barbs on the airwaves for months, but Wednesday night’s presidential debate on the University of Denver campus was the first time the two rivals squared off face to face.
An estimated 50 million viewers were expected to tune in to the much anticipated debate, the first of three and the only held in Colorado – a prized swing state that both campaigns view as must-win.
As expected, the sputtering economy took center stage, with moderator Jim Lehrer opening the debate with a question about unemployment, which has exceeded 8 percent for 43 straight months.
President Obama touted his bailout of the auto industry as evidence that his policies are improving the economy.
“We’ve begun to fight our way back,” said Obama. “The auto industry has come roaring back.”
Mr. Obama also invoked Bill Clinton, claiming that his policies were simply an extension of the former president’s.
“Bill Clinton tried the same approach I’m talking about — and we created 23 million new jobs, went from deficit to surplus, and businesses did well,” said Mr. Obama
“Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed,” Romney countered in a not-so-subtle jab at comments Vice President Joe Biden made on Tuesday.
Romney characterized President Obama’s philosophy of public spending as a key driver of economic growth, and his support for a more dominant federal role in sectors like health care, energy and finance as “trickle down government.”
“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,” said Romney. “That’s not the right answer for America.”
“Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today,” he added.
“The question here tonight is not where we’ve been but where we’re going,” Obama countered. “Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skewed towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations that we’ll be better off.”
Romney also made reference to the dramatic increase in the number of people now dependent on food stamps as evidence that the country is headed in the wrong direction under Mr. Obama’s leadership.
“The proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is one out of six people in poverty,” said Romney. “The proof of that is…47 million on food stamps.”
The number of those receiving food stamps has more than doubled over the last four years. As Romney noted, a record 47 million Americans now receive benefits under the welfare program, costing taxpayers some $80 billion per year.
“The path we’re taking isn’t working. It’s time for a new path.” Romney said.
The candidates also clashed over fiscal management.
“The president said he was going to cut the deficit in half and he more than doubled it,” said Romney, adding “It’s now four years later. We still have trillion dollar deficits.”
For his part, President Obama accused his GOP challenger of wanting to “[D]ouble-down on the top-down policies that got us into this mess.”
America’s debt has expanded rapidly the last four years, rising more in the four years of Mr. Obama’s presidency than it did during the previous eight years of the Bush Administration.
The national debt now stands at $16 trillion, up from just over $10 trillion when Mr. Obama took office, prompting Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S.’ credit rating last summer.
Credit rating agency Egan-Jones quietly downgraded the U.S. again last month.
Romney also took aim at the so-called “stimulus” legislation, one of the Obama Administration’s signature domestic achievements.
“You put $90 billion…into solar and wind to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1,” said Romney in a pointed reference to the collapse of several politically connected green energy firms.
President Obama pledged in 2009 that the controversial $830 billion spending package would add 3.5 million jobs. It didn’t.
By night’s end, the general consensus among political observers seemed to be that Mr. Romney came out on top.
“Mr. Romney needed to come out and have a strong night,” said liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow after the debate. “And he did have a strong night.”
“I think [Obama] took Romney too lightly,” added CNN contributor and former Obama advisor Van Jones.
The overwhelming majority of participants in a post-debate Fox News focus group discussion comprised of undecided Colorado voters agreed.
“It seems like [Obama] wasn’t prepared,” one focus group participant told facilitator Frank Luntz. “Like he was working off the talking points.”
A post-debate CNN/ORC poll of registered voters who watched the debate found that 67 percent of respondents believed Mr. Romney won the debate, compared to just 25 percent who said Mr. Obama did.
When asked which candidate they found more likeable, poll respondents also gave the edge to Mr. Romney by a slim one point margin, 46 percent to 45.
Even high-profile Obama backers like comedian Bill Maher were unimpressed with Mr. Obama’s performance.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter,” Maher tweeted after the debate.
Even so, most pundits classified Mr. Romney’s victory as more unanimous decision than first round knockout.
“This is the first act of the final month, and it’s going to change things,” said CNN’s John King.