Mitt Romney and President Obama after Wednesday's presidential… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
DENVER — In the first presidential debate of the fall campaign, neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama appeared to land a knockout blow or commit the sort of serious blunder that would instantly change the presidential race.
The Republican challenger held his own during a 90-minute encounter that revolved almost exclusively around domestic issues.
Romney, offering sharper answers than Obama and seizing control of the debate at several points, was never ruffled, repeatedly predicting that Obama would provide more “trickle-down government” if he were reelected in November. He defended himself against charges from Obama that his tax cut plan would favor the wealthy.
For his part, Obama tried to bury his opponent in the very thing that Romney is said to crave: data. Repeatedly referring to arguments offered by his leading surrogate, former President Clinton, Obama tried to rebut Romney’s claim that he could balance the budget while cutting tax rates across the board and increasing military spending by $2 billion.
“Math, common sense and our history shows us that's not a recipe for job growth,” Obama said.
But Obama sometimes appeared to struggle to offer fluid descriptions of his own policies — including on healthcare. His campaign appeared to acknowledge that it hadn’t been his best night.
"Mitt Romney, yes, he absolutely wins the preparation, and he wins the style points,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said on CNN. “But that's not what's been dogging his campaign. What's been dogging his campaign are the policies that he doubled down on tonight."'
Cutter said that “we feel pretty good about the president's performance here tonight. Again, he wasn't speaking to the people in this room. He wasn't speaking to the pundit class. He was speaking to the people at home.”
Romney’s campaign policy director, Lanhee Chen, described Obama as “flatfooted” and said the president gave answers that “were kind of meandering at times. … I wasn’t sure what the points were.” By contrast, he said, Romney delivered his responses “clearly, crisply and concisely.”
Obama repeatedly avoided opportunities to take personal shots at his rival, even when offered clear openings. The president had one when Romney tried to rebut a charge that he favored tax breaks for U.S. companies that ship jobs overseas.
“Look, I've been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you're talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant,” Romney said. Obama’s campaign has hammered the Republican for months over accusations that he profited from shipping jobs overseas and over his personal taxes, which include offshore accounts—but the president did not respond.
Similarly, Romney’s comments about the 47% of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year, the subject of heavy attack advertising by the Obama campaign, was never brought up by the president.
Romney, on the other hand, whose advisors said he’d deliver “zingers,” managed to get several in. Asked for specific programs he’d cut, he offered nothing that would make a serious dent in the federal deficit. But in a memorable line, Romney turned to debate moderator Jim Lehrer and said, “I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS…. I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I am not going to keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
Tangling over healthcare, the candidates offered clear differences. Romney argued that the law was keeping businesses from hiring, would force doctors to drop patients and cost Americans money. He summed it up neatly: “So, it’s expensive; expensive things hurt families.”
Romney also echoed a Democratic criticism of the president, saying that Obama spent “his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people.”
Obama noted that policies in his healthcare law were once supported by Republicans and were modeled on the law Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts.
“This was a bipartisan idea. In fact, it was a Republican idea. And Gov. Romney at the beginning of this debate wrote and said what we did in Massachusetts could be a model for the nation.”
In his closing statement Obama offered a self-deprecating appeal for voters who still like the president but feel disappointed by his failure to make more progress in delivering on his 2008 campaign promises.