In a passionate performance in the first of the presidential debates last night, Governor Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of “crushing the middle class”, assailing him on his record and calling him out on everything from tax policy, healthcare reform or what he called his attachment to “trickle-down government”.
While Mr Romney maintained an aggressive and energetic stance throughout the 90-minute showdown at the University of Denver, Mr Obama remained cool and mostly grave in his demeanour to the point of professorial. Viewers saw him frequently looking down at his shoes while his challenger kept his finger on the trigger firing fusillades on his record of the last four years. “You raised taxes and you killed jobs,” Mr Romney declared.
The debate, the first time the two men have met on the same stage in an election hitherto largely fought through negative advertising and the confections that are the party conventions, vividly illustrated the ideological divide between them as they sparred on economic policy as well as on their differing visions of the role of government.
Perhaps aided by lowered expectations and by the fact that it is the incumbent who has the burden of a record to defend, Mr Romney seized the ball from the start. “I'm concerned that we’re on the path that’s just been unsuccessful”, he said, adding: “The President has a view very similar to the one he had when he ran for office four years go, that spending more, taxing more, regulating more, if you will, trickle-down government would work. That's not the right answer for America.”
The night may now help the Romney camp change the dynamics of the race and get past the damage done by the famous tape showing him disparaging 47 per cent of Americans as “victims” dependent on handouts – a video which Mr Obama declined to raise once in the debate – and focus attention instead on Mr Obama’s record. “Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today,” he said here on the stage.
“If this was boxing match, the referee would have called it and Mitt Romney would have been the clear winner,” Eric Ferhnstrom, a Romney advisor, suggested moments after the debate would up. “What the President gave us were empty platitudes. He has given us no vision of where he wants to take the country.”
But aides to the President insisted he had been effective hammering Mr Romney on an economic plan they call unworkable. The President said repeatedly that his rival’s promise to cut taxes by 20 per cent across the board would create a $5 trillion shortfall in government revenue that would in the end force him to raise taxes on the middle class. He also sought to tie him to the policies of George W. Bush, without mentioning him by name. It was those policies of tax-cutting and deregulation that had brought the country to the financial brink four years ago, he said.
But Mr Romney indignantly denied many of the charges made against him. One of the sharpest moments came when Mr Obama said his opponent meant to make cuts in education. “You’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts,” Mr Romney responded. “I’m not going to cut education funding.”
He also refuted the $5 trillion figure and said he would not pass any tax policies that would add to the deficit. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of the scale that you’re talking about,” Romney said. “If the tax plan he just described were a tax plan I were asked to support, I’d say absolutely not.”
There are two more presidential debates to come and another, next week, between the vice-presidential candidates. “This debate will test whether debates can change polls or election outcomes,” said Larry Sabato, director of political studies at the University of Virginia. “Doubtful but possible.” But at least one senior Obama aide seemed to concede last night that the upshot from the first might be a tightening of polls.
“We don’t care about the national polls,” David Plouffe said, arguing that what mattered more was how the President faired in swing states like Ohio and Florida, where for now he has an edge. “Do I think that things will be fundamentally different in Ohio tonight? I absolutely reject that.” He also said the president had overall done a good job – an assessment not shared by liberal and Democrat bloggers who averred widespread disappointment.
“My sense is that he came across as more steady than Mitt Romney and less testy and the Americna people like that. I think the President came across as more likeable and more connected to the middle class”.