With the long presidential campaign entering its final month, Romney needed a strong showing in the debate before tens of millions of television viewers as polls show him falling behind the president in what has been a tight race.
It is not clear what effect, if any, the debate will have. But Romney, often seen as wooden and lacking passion, seemed more at ease than Obama. In a rare post-debate concession, some Democratic strategists not involved in the campaign conceded the president was not at his best and missed opportunities to challenge his rival.
Romney was clearly on the offensive, blaming Obama for the weak US economy — the biggest issue in the campaign. "Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today," Romney said.
Transcript of the debate
He repeatedly accused Obama of misstating his positions, virtually lecturing him at one point after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funds. "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts."
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo)
Obama sparred back, accusing Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, of seeking to "double down" on economic policies that led to the devastating economic downturn four years ago — and of evasiveness when it came to prescriptions for tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.
After Romney said he would repeal and replace regulations passed after the 2008 financial crisis, Obama responded: "Does anyone think there is too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate."
Obama, a former legal scholar, seemed somewhat professorial at times. He avoided themes that his campaign has used against Romney, including criticism of Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital, which the Democrat has demonized as a corporate predator. Obama also did not mention that Romney has personal assets in Swiss bank accounts.
More surprisingly, Obama made no reference to a widely publicized secret recording of Romney, in which he said that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as victims who depend on the government and refuse to take responsibility for their lives.
The debate, the first of three this month, had been widely anticipated. Polls showed that the public expected Obama, a gifted speaker, had an advantage over Romney, and Romney's campaign pushed that viewpoint to lower expectations for their candidate.
Neither candidate appeared to make any major gaffes likely to change the course of the race. At times the debate turned into rapid-fire charges and retorts that drew on dense facts and figures that were difficult to follow. The men argued over oil industry subsidies, federal spending as a percentage of the GDP, cuts to the health care program for the elderly, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.
The candidates' answers reflected their general philosophical differences. Romney and fellow Republicans see the federal government as too big, taxing Americans excessively, running up deficits and hindering job creation through unnecessary regulations. Obama and his fellow Democrats see government as a potential force for good, providing the infrastructure and education needed in a dynamic economy and giving even poor Americans the opportunity to succeed.
President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred aggressively over taxes, deficits and health care Wednesday in their first debate of the presidential campaign. A look at what they said:
Obama: "Gov. Romney and I do share a deep interest in encouraging small-business growth. So at the same time that my tax plan has already lowered taxes for 98 percent of families, I also lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times. And what I want to do is continue the tax rates, the tax cuts that we put into place for small businesses and families. But I have said that for incomes over $250,000 a year, that we should go back to the rates that we had when Bill Clinton was president, when we created 23 million new jobs, went from deficit to surplus, and created a whole lot of millionaires to boot."
Romney: "I want to bring the rates down, at the same time lower deductions and exemptions and credits and so forth, so we keep getting the revenue we need. And you'd think, well, then why lower the rates? And the reason is because small business pays that individual rate; 54 percent of America's workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate, but at the individual tax rate. And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people. For me, this is about jobs. This is about getting jobs for the American people."
Obama: "I think we've got to invest in education and training. I think it's important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we're helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States, that we take some of the money that we're saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments."
Romney: "First of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. ... No. 2, I'll take programs that are currently good programs but I think could be run more efficiently at the state level and send them to the state. No. 3, I'll make government more efficient and to cut back the number of employees, combine some agencies and departments."
Obama: "We've got some data on which approach is more likely to create jobs and opportunity for Americans, and I believe that the economy works best when middle-class families are getting tax breaks so that they've got some money in their pockets. And those of us who have done extraordinarily well because of this magnificent country that we live in, that we can afford to do a little bit more to make sure we're not blowing up the deficit."
Romney: "My priority is jobs. And so what I do is I bring down the tax rates, lower deductions and exemptions — the same idea behind Bowles-Simpson, by the way. Get the rates down, lower deductions and exemptions, to create more jobs. Because there's nothing better for getting us to a balanced budget than having more people working, earning more money, paying more taxes. That's by far the most effective and efficient way to get this budget balanced."
Obama: "I don't think vouchers are the right way to go. And this is not my own — only my opinion. AARP thinks that the savings that we obtained from Medicare bolster the system, lengthen the Medicare trust fund by eight years. Benefits were not affected at all. And ironically, if you repeal 'Obamacare' — and I have become fond of this term, Obamacare — if you repeal it, what happens is those seniors right away are going to be paying $600 more in prescription care. They're now going to have to be paying co-pays for basic checkups that can keep them healthier."
Romney: "What I support is no change for current retirees and near-retirees to Medicare. And the president supports taking $716 billion out of that program. ... For people coming along that are young, what I do to make sure that we can keep Medicare in place for them is to allow them either to choose the current Medicare program or a private plan. Their choice."
Health care reform
Obama: "The irony is that we've seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Gov. Romney did a good thing, working with Democrats in the state to set up what is essentially the identical model, and as a consequence, people are covered there. It hasn't destroyed jobs. And as a consequence, we now have a system in which we have the opportunity to start bringing down costs, as opposed to just leaving millions of people out in the cold."
Romney: "I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together. What you did instead was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote. ... We didn't put in place a board that can tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive. We didn't also do something that I think a number of people across this country recognize, which is put people in a position where they're going to lose the insurance they had and they wanted."
The debate began on a friendly note. The two rivals clasped hands and smiled as they strode onto the debate stage at the University of Denver, then waved to the audience before taking their places behind identical podiums. They faced questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.
There was a quick moment of laughter when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama as "sweetie" and noted it was their 20th anniversary. Romney added best wishes, and said to the first couple, "I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me."
Though Election Day is more than a month away, many Americans have already started casting ballots because some states allow early voting. That put extra pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.
The next two debates are Oct. 16 in New York and Oct. 22 in Florida.
Vice President Joe Biden and Romney's running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, have one debate, Oct. 11 in Kentucky.