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Obama, Romney have feisty faceoff in first debate

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)
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DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 03: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) listens as Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver as moderator Jim Lehrer looks on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The first of four debates for the 2012 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer and focuses on domestic issues: the economy, health care, and the role of government. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
With a broadcast of the presidential debate reflected in a mirror above the bar behind them, customers at the Havana Social Club in Seattle watch the debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came out swinging in the first presidential debate Wednesday night, attacking President Obama's economic, health care and spending policies.

Obama called for “a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best.” Romney called that “trickle-down government.”

Jim Lehrer, anchor of “PBS NewsHour” at times struggled to maintain control of the contentious 90-minute debate centered on domestic policy at the Magness Arena at the University of Denver, the first of three presidential and one vice presidential debate. Many analysts and Romney supporters said the Republican challenger needed to use the debate to reverse the perception that his campaign is flagging.

After the debate, political analysts on both sides of the aisle said they thought the challenger succeeded.

Chris Matthews, an Obama supporter who advocates Democratic positions on his MSNBC show, said he didn't know what Obama “was doing out there — he had his head down. He was enduring the debate rather than fighting it.”

Romney, though, went out there with a “plan” to dominate the evening, and he succeeded, Matthews said.

Romney accused Obama of picking “losers” with billions of dollars in renewable energy subsidies and said Obama's policies have led to 23 million unemployed, one in six people in poverty and a job market that doesn't have room for half of all college graduates.

“We know the path we're taking is not working. It's time for a new path,” Romney said.

Obama criticized Romney for promising to replace Obama's tax, health care and regulatory policies without specifying how.

“At some point, the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good? Because middle-class families benefit too much? No,” Obama said.

Partisan analysts said the candidates did what they needed to do.

“I think the president did a good job of contextualizing the situation he inherited, the steps he has taken to help the country and the path he needs to pursue to go forward,” said Steve McMahon, the Democratic co-founder of Purple Strategies and former strategist to Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

“This was a pretty clear win for Mitt Romney tonight,” said Bruce Haynes, managing partner of Purple Strategies and the Republican half of the Washington-based group. “Obama came out stiff and tight, like the candidate who knew he was the one with more to lose. He uncharacteristically stumbled through his first substantive answer on the economy and stayed stuck in neutral the rest of the way.”

Romney wants to lower tax rates across all brackets and eliminate deductions and loopholes to offset the cost to the federal budget. He and Obama sparred over the cost of that cut, with the president claiming it would amount to $5 trillion, and Romney saying he wouldn't support any tax plan that increases the national debt.

“There will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” Romney said. “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut.”

“If you lower the rates you describe, Governor, it is not possible” to eliminate enough deductions and loopholes to offset the revenue lost by lowering rates, Obama said. “It's math. It's arithmetic.”

Romney accused Obama of cutting entitlement benefits for current retirees, which Romney said he would not do.

“On Medicare, for current retirees, he's cutting $716 billion from the program,” Romney said.

The $716 billion isn't actually a cut in the amount of money spent; it's a reduction in the rate of growth over 10 years. Medicare spending is still set to increase each year. Most of the Medicare-related cuts in Obama's health care law come from payments to insurers and health care providers. Those rate cuts have led providers to stop accepting new Medicare patients, Romney said.

Obama criticized Romney's plan to partially privatize Medicare, saying it would lead to the eventual collapse of the system as insurance companies cherry-pick the healthiest beneficiaries, adding more stress to the government program.

“I don't think vouchers are the right way to go,” Obama said.

Obama defended the health care law, saying it worked well in Romney's home state.

“The irony is, we've seen this model work really well: in Massachusetts,” Obama said.

Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law in 2010. It included some of the same changes as the Massachusetts law Romney signed in 2006, when he was governor, including the requirement that nearly everyone purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.

Romney sought to distance himself from the law during the GOP primary, saying it was right for his state but could be wrong for other states. He defended it Wednesday.

A big difference between Massachusetts' plan and the federal law, Romney said, is his plan had bipartisan support.

“What you did was to push through a plan without a single Republican vote,” Romney said. “We didn't raise taxes. You raised them by $1 trillion.”

The candidates hit the trail on Thursday in swing states. Obama will campaign in Denver and Wisconsin. Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will head to Virginia.

The vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 11. Two presidential debates will follow on Oct. 16 and 22.

Mike Wereschagin and Salena Zito are staff writers for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or She can be reached at

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