Mitt Romney and President Obama after Wednesday's presidential… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
DENVER — President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney differed sharply Wednesday night over taxes, Medicare and, especially, the record of the last four years in a pointed but largely polite debate that highlighted the deep substantive divide between the two philosophical foes.
Romney portrayed Obama's tenure as an unmitigated failure, citing continued high unemployment, a rise in dependence on food stamps and other assistance programs, and disappointingly tepid economic growth. He said the president's "trickle-down government" was "not the right answer for America. I'll restore the vitality that gets America working again."
"Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today," Romney said.
"It's time for a new path," he later added.
Obama spoke of entering office amid an economic crisis and suggested the progress the nation had made -- modest private sector job growth, the recovery of the auto industry, a slow healing of the housing market -- would be jeopardized by a Romney return to the approach that caused the hardship in the first place.
"Are we going to double-down on the top-down policies that helped get us into this mess?" Obama said near the opening of the 90-minute session. He said Americans had heard the same pitch -- promises of lower taxes and a smaller deficit -- when George W. Bush ran in 2000, and the result was a soaring national debt capped by the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
"Math, common sense and our history shows us that's not a recipe for job growth," Obama said. "Look, we've tried this."
The president entered the debate on the University of Denver campus with a breeze at his back, holding small but significant leads in the eight or so battleground states that are likely to decide the race. Romney, after a rough several weeks, was looking to reverse Obama's momentum, and he was assertive throughout the night, several times talking over the moderator, longtime PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.
Tonally, the debate was worlds apart from the slashing campaign being conducted in the key states. Obama did not mention Romney's recently publicized remark critical of almost half of Americans -- those who did not pay 2011 federal income taxes -- nor Romney's tenure at the Bain Capital venture firm, key components of the ads that helped push him ahead of the Republican.
For his part, Romney seemed to steer toward the middle, emphasizing his support for popular elements of Obama's healthcare plan and moderate regulation of the financial industry, and what he cast as his bipartisan approach in Massachusetts. And he displayed a polish that eluded Obama for most of the night.
Obama repeatedly attacked Romney's promise to cut taxes across the board and pay for it by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. He said that, in truth, Romney would give cuts to the rich and raise the burden on the poor and middle class. There was simply no way, the president said, for Romney's plan to mathematically add up.
"He's been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't been able to identify them," said Obama, who proposes a tax hike on household incomes over $250,000 and individuals earning over $200,000.
"Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate," Romney fired back, insisting he would not "under any circumstances" raise taxes on the middle class or boost the deficit, though he did not offer more detail.
Obama said Romney would gut schools and make deep, painful cuts to Medicare as part of his budget-balancing plan, which relies solely on spending cuts. The former Massachusetts governor heatedly denied he would cut education spending -- boasting that the state's schools were ranked No. 1 in the nation -- and said raising taxes would "kill jobs.... You never balance the budget by raising taxes."
Instead, he vowed to cut funding for the Public Broadcasting System, eliminate the number of government employees through attrition, combine some federal agencies and apply a simple test to federal spending: "Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?"
Romney took part in 19 debates during the primary season, turning in several strong performances when his candidacy was imperiled, and he spent months rehearsing for Wednesday night. Obama, by contrast, had not taken the debate stage in nearly four years.
The challenger's practice showed. While the president sometime drifted into long, professorial disquisitions, Romney was crisp and on offense for most of the night.
"You're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts," he tartly told the president at one point.