President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, faced off Wednesday in their first debate of the election campaign. The debate focused on the top issue of the campaign, the state of the U.S. economy.
For 90 minutes, the president and the former governor of the state of Massachusetts clashed over how best to strengthen the country's sluggish economy.
Romney aggressively attacked the Democratic president's economic policies, and they disagreed sharply about tax cuts. "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate. So if the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I would say 'Absolutely not.' I am not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut," he said.
Obama countered that the challenger's ideas for changing the tax system would not work. "The fact is, if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class," he said.
They also sparred over whether the president's health care program, sometimes called "Obamacare," would help or hurt the U.S. economy. The Republican challenger said Obama should have concentrated instead on creating jobs.
"I just do not know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table, and spent his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare, instead of fighting for jobs for the American people," said Romney.
The president responded that when he took office, problems in the nation's health care system were just as urgent as the jobless rate.
"It was not just that small businesses were seeing costs skyrocket and they could not get affordable coverage even if they wanted to provide it to their employees. It was not just that this was the biggest driver of our federal deficit, our overall health care costs. But it was families who worried about going bankrupt if they got sick," he said.
The widely-anticipated debate, in Denver, Colorado, took place 34 days before the election.
Most recent public opinion polls show Obama with a slight lead nationwide and in the swing states that analysts expect to decide the election.
Joseph Lowndes, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, says the first debate is usually the most important, especially for the challenger. While he believes both candidates performed well, he says Romney did not score a decisive victory.
"No challenger who has trailed as much as Romney has, going into this debate, has ever won. So I think, you know, it is not likely to be enough of a bump to actually change the game in any significant ways," he said.
Frank Gilliam, the dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), also says the governor did well, but not well enough to give him a lead in the polls.
"Romney scored a body blow, perhaps, but nothing to put the president in danger, certainly not a knockout," he said.
This was the first of three debates between the two contenders. President Obama and Governor Romney will square off next on October 16, on both domestic and foreign policy issues. The final debate, exclusively on foreign policy, is set for October 22.
Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan, will debate on October 11.