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Presidential candidates clash over economy in first debate

Thursday, October 4, 2012

(Photo)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver.
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
DENVER -- In a showdown at close quarters, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred aggressively in their first campaign debate Wednesday night over taxes, deficits and strong steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering national economy. "The status quo is not going to cut it," declared the challenger.

Obama in turn accused his rival of seeking to "double down" on economic policies that actually led to the devastating national downturn four years ago -- and of evasiveness on details for Romney proposals on tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.

Both men made frequent references to the weak economy and high national unemployment, by far the dominant issue in the race for the White House. Public opinion polls show Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally, and Romney was particularly aggressive, like a man looking to shake up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.

With a prime-time television audience likely counted in the tens of millions, moderator Jim Lehrer was pressed at time to enforce time limits on the two rivals. The president occasionally shook his head as Romney talked over Lehrer.

And Romney virtually lectured Obama 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."

Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, repeal Obama's health care plan, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits -- but he provided no specifics despite Obama's prodding.

Said Obama: "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."

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, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.

Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and didn't hesitate to interrupt the president or the moderator.

Despite the wonky tone of the debate, Romney managed to make some points by personalizing his comments with recollections of people he said he had met on the campaign trail. In another folksy reference, Romney told Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS even though "I love Big Bird."

Generally polite but pointed, the two men agreed about little if anything.

Obama said his opponent's plan to reduce all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle income taxpayers.

Shot back Romney: "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate."

The former Massachusetts governor and businessman added that Obama's proposal to allow the expiration of tax cuts on upper-level income would mean tax increases on small businesses that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands.

The two campaign 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 lecterns.

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."

Both candidates' wives were in the audience.

Obama and Romney will meet twice more this month, and their running mates once, but in past election years, viewership has sometimes fallen off after the first encounter.

Without saying so, the two rivals quickly got to the crux of their race -- Romney's eagerness to turn the contest into a referendum on the past four years while the incumbent desires for voters to choose between his plan for the next four years and the one his rival backs.

Romney ticked off the dreary economic facts of life -- a sharp spike in food stamps, economic growth "lower this year than last" and "23 million people out of work or stropped looking for work."

But Obama criticized Romney's prescriptions and his refusal to raise taxes and said, "if you take such an unbalanced approach then that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education ... health care for seniors in nursing homes [and] for kids with disabilities."

Not surprisingly, the two men disagreed over Medicare, a flash point since Romney placed Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket.

The president repeatedly described Romney's plan as a "voucher program" that would raise out-of-pocket costs on seniors.

He continued, directly addressing the voters at home: "If you're 54 or 55 you might want to listen because this will affect you."

Romney said he doesn't support any changes for current retirees or those close to retirement.

"If you're 60 or 60 and older you don't need to listen further," he said, but he contended that fundamental changes are needed to prevent the system from becoming insolvent as millions of baby boom generation Americans become eligible.

Romney also made a detailed case for repealing Obamacare, the name attached to the health care plan that Obama pushed through Congress in 2010. "It has killed jobs," he said, and argued that the best approach is to "do what we did in my state."

Though he didn't say so, when he was governor Massachusetts passed legislation that required residents to purchase coverage -- the so-called individual mandate that conservatives and he oppose on a national level.

Romney also said that Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare over the next decade.

The president said the changes were part of a plan to lengthen the program's life, and he added that AARP, the seniors lobby, supports it.

Jim Lehrer of PBS drew moderator's duties, with Obama getting the first question and Romney the last word.

Five weeks before Election Day, early voting is under way in scattered states and beginning in more every day. Opinion polls show Obama with an advantage nationally and in most if not all of the battleground states where the race is most likely to be decided.

That put particular pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.

The sputtering economy served as the debate backdrop, as it has for virtually everything else in the 2012 campaign for the White House. Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a turnaround that hasn't materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he took office.

The customary security blended with a festival-like atmosphere in the surrounding area on a warm and sunny day. The Lumineers performed for free, and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am delivered a pep talk of sorts to Obama's supporters. School officials arranged to show the debate on monitors outside the hall for those without tickets.

There was local political theater, too, including female Romney supporters wearing short shorts and holding signs that said, "What War On Women?" -- a rebuttal to claims by Obama and the Democrats.

Both campaigns engaged in a vigorous pre-debate competition to set expectations, each side suggesting the other had built-in advantages.

Romney took part in 19 debates during the campaign for the Republican primary early in the year. The president has not been onstage with a political opponent since his last face-to-face encounter with Arizona Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival in 2008.

Obama and Romney prepared for the evening with lengthy practice sessions. Romney selected Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as a stand-in for the president; Obama turned to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to play the Republican role.

The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Both men have already begun holding practice sessions.


Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this story. David Espo reported from Washington.


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(I thought it pertinent to point out the exchange between the two men regarding Medicaid):

OBAMA:... As I indicated before, when you talk about shifting Medicaid to states, we're talking about potentially a 30 -- a 30 percent cut in Medicaid over time.

ROMNEY:... I would like to take the Medicaid dollars that go to states and say to a state, you're going to get what you got last year, plus inflation, plus 1 percent, and then you're going to manage your care for your poor in the way you think best.

(Also, regarding energy):

ROMNEY: ... to oil, to tax breaks, then companies going overseas. So let's go through them one by one.

First of all, the Department of Energy has said the tax break for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year. And it's actually an accounting treatment, as you know, that's been in place for a hundred years. Now ...

OBAMA: It's time to end it.

ROMNEY: And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world.

Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives. And you say Exxon and Mobil. Actually, this $2.8 billion goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.

But don't forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years' worth of breaks, into -- into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said you don't just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right? So this -- this is not -- this is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy secure.

(The so called "green energy" gig has been a large waste of taxpayer money. IMO)

-- Posted by dchannes on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 11:32 AM

Mr. Romney, I'm with you. Give our small businesses a chance to grow just like in history, little businesses grew bigger and employed more people. If you shut them down now, you not only lose them as earners but their employees as well. Each small business that closes brings us closer to the brink. Our people need jobs and since big businesses are going overseas, more jobs will not come from them.

Obama scares me because his actions have cut so many jobs and essentially cut the middle class people down to the poverty level. With Obama hard work doesn't account for much like it used to. Used to you'd work hard and be rewarded with a better life from your family.

I think Mr. Romney means for his leadership to bring the opportunities for people in our country.

Obama has brought our country down lower than it has ever been. We need change, and Mr. Romney is offering that.

-- Posted by Kac on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 6:35 PM

Oh and why are the debates held in areas where the most of the population would have no chance to attend even if they could. Boca Raton, FL, is a very ritzy area and only the wealthy can afford to live or have vacation homes. All the debates are in the big states.

I got a chuckle when I read that Obama used Kerry as a representative of a Republican. He isn't even a good Democrat, how could he even try to be a Republican?

-- Posted by Kac on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 6:44 PM


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