DENVER — President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney battled for 90 minutes on Wednesday in detail-laden jousting over tax plans, health care, and government regulation.
The first of their three debates took place on the campus of the University of Denver, moderated by veteran PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer, who often had a tough time keeping the two well-prepared combatants to their topics and time limits. The candidates entered flashing big smiles and exchanged hearty handshakes before the often wonkish policy clashes. President Obama opened with an anniversary wish to his wife, Michelle, who watched from the front row along with Ann Romney, wife of the GOP candidate. Mr. Romney kidded that the debate was a less than ideal setting for the Obamas’ celebration.
“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here — with me,’’ he said, in a quip that highlighted that he sometimes seemed to be having a better time on the stage than the President.
The exchanges that followed reflected that both candidates were performing a balancing act in trying to attack the opponent without appearing excessively caustic or aggressive. That dilemma was particularly acute for Mr. Romney, who entered the debate with the burden of a chronic disadvantage in his favorability ratings compared to the President. But playing the challenger’s traditional role of the aggressor, he managed to be on the attack without verging into anger, as both candidates maintained civil, even tones throughout.
The candidates differed sharply on one another’s tax plans as well on on their opponent’s descriptions of their own.
Mr. Romney has said he will reduce all income tax rates across the board by 20 percent but avoid an unacceptable loss of revenue by eliminating unspecified deductions and preferences in the current tax code.
Mr. Obama characterized that as a $5 trillion tax cut, which he said would both favor the wealthy and vastly increase the deficit. Mr. Romney insisted that the $5 trillion figure was not accurate. He contended his proposal would produce economic growth and resulting revenue to counteract the need for the kinds of spending cuts Mr. Obama said would be inevitable.
“My number-one principle is, there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit,’’ Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Obama contended that Mr. Romney’s adamance was belied by his rhetoric throughout the campaign.
“Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is — ‘Never mind,’ ” the President said. “It is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s math. It’s arithmetic.’’
The Republican also argued that Mr. Obama’s call for an increase in taxes on wealthier Americans would cost jobs. Mr. Obama denied that, noting that the vast majority of smaller business would not pay the top rate. But Mr. Romney countered that the small percentage that would be affected account for a disproportionate share of the jobs in the small business sector.
Mr. Obama argued that the economic analysis that Mr. Romney advanced was at odds with recent history. He noted that under former President Bill Clinton tax rates had been similar to his proposals, and yet the nation’s job picture was much healthier than under the Bush administration when the economy lagged despite a succession of tax cuts.
“We’ve tried both approaches,’’ Mr. Obama said, calling Mr. Romney’s argument “the same sales pitch that was made in 2000 and 2003 ... [that culminated ] in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
“Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate,’’ Mr. Romney said. “I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals.’’
Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Romney on the lack of specificity in his answers and in his proposals, dismissing one of the Republican’s responses with the observation, ‘‘It wasn’t very detailed — this seems to be a trend.”
The exchanges on Medicare were a continuation of one of the campaign’s more persistent disputes. The Patient Protection and Affordable Health care Act — Obamacare in the term coined by Republicans and lately embraced by Democrats, including Mr Obama last night — takes $710 billion from the projected rate of growth of payment to hospitals and insurers and devotes it instead to the costs of the new law, including increased prescription coverage for seniors.
That was the basis of a charge Republicans used effectively against Democrats in 2010 as the GOP accused them of “robbing Medicare,’’ an attack line that helped them recapture the House, and one that Mr. Romney returned to repeatedly last night.
Mr. Obama defended his legislation and turned the attack on Mr. Romney as he said his plan to partially shift Medicare to a voucher plan for younger citizens would place seniors at risk and eventually lead to the ruin of the traditional Medicare system that would exist alongside the private plans that Mr. Romney envisions.
Mr. Obama insisted that Mr. Romney had not offered any real plan for how he would replace the health care act, charging that the Republican’s plan would leave vulnerable citizens with pre-existing medical conditions without coverage.
The pair also differed sharply on government regulation. While acknowledging that some regulation of business and markets was essential, Mr. Romney restated his opposition to the Dodd-Frank legislation to increase regulation of Wall Street.
“Does anyone out there think the problem we had was too much regulation of ... Wall Street,’’ Mr. Obama said, “because if you do, Governor Romney is your candidate.’’
Instant polls commissioned by two television networks suggested that Mr. Romney had had the better night. A CNN survey gave the Republican the debate by a margin of 67 percent to 25 percent. A CBS poll was nearly as one-sided, favoring Mr. Romney 46 percent to 22 percent.
The debate came after other polls had shown Mr. Obama with a narrow lead nationally and more significant advantages in most of the key states expected to determine the election. The weeks since the two party conventions have not been kind to Mr. Romney on the polling front, although recent days have brought some evidence of movement in his direction.
Gallup’s daily tracking poll showed the President leading 49 percent to 45 percent on the evening of the encounter, while Rasmussen saw a slightly closer race, 49 percent to 47 percent. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC survey fond the national race at 49 percent for Mr. Obama and 46 percent for Mr. Romney, a margin down slightly from the five-point race the same poll found in mid-September. The National Journal, meanwhile found the national race dead even at 47 percent apiece.
In the state-by-state competition, however, Mr. Obama held a stronger hand with just over a month before election day. Ohio increasingly seemed to be joining its Pennsylvania neighbor as a traditional battleground slipping into the Democratic column. But new surveys in Virginia and Florida suggested some tightening, cutting into the President’s persistent but narrow leads there.
Whether Wednesday’s exchanges would budge those results will become clearer in the coming days.
Both candidates will have the chance to influence them again when they meet in two weeks in Hempstead, N.Y., in a town-hall format and a week after when they will focus on foreign policy in Boca Raton, Fla.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O’Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 412-263-1562.