Mitt Romney took the offensive against the incumbent in the first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, repeatedly challenging a stumbling and weary-looking President Barack Obama.
The debate’s theme was domestic issues, and the two debaters emphasized the economy. "My priority is jobs," Romney said.
Romney also fact-checked Obama’s assertions about the former governor of Massachusetts.
For instance, when Obama cited a tax deduction for exporting jobs, Romney responded incredulously: "Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about."
Romney was equally firm while rebutting Obama’s repeated line of attack on healthcare.
A president cannot come into office dictating, "It’s my way or the highway," Romney said. Instead, a leader has to lay out broad principles that can guide how he works with the legislature to craft legislation.
Romney cited his tenure as governor in Massachusetts, where he worked with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, as evidence for his ability to work with both sides of the aisle.
"I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again," Romney said.
Jim Lehrer of PBS moderated the event but seemed unable to corral either candidate. Romney insisted several times that he be able to respond, at one point invoking the rules of the debate, and Lehrer allowed him to continue almost every time.
Despite Romney repeatedly demanding more response time, Obama spoke four minutes longer than Romney.
Lehrer asked both candidates for their thoughts on government regulation.
Contradicting the media narrative of Romney as a merciless capitalist, the former Massachusetts governor insisted that regulation is good.
"Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work without regulation," he said.
But, Romney said, the Dodd-Frank financial reform fails in critical respects. He cited the implicit protection that the law gives to banks considered "too big to fail."
That is the "biggest kiss that’s been given to New York banks that I’ve ever seen," he said.
Obama said the big banks were a major reason for the financial collapse in 2008, and "we stepped in and had the toughest Wall Street requirements since the 1930s."
The two candidates also discussed the budget deficit and entitlements.
Romney insisted that the federal deficit is "a moral issue."
Obama said that unfunded tax cuts and federal expenditures generated the current deficit and debt. He spoke about a "balanced approach" for cutting the deficit that includes both revenues and spending cuts.
When asked by Lehrer whether he would support revenue increases, Romney flatly said no.
"Your plan will kill 700,000 jobs," Romney said to Obama about his deficit reduction plan.
Romney said that he would generate more revenue for the government by cutting taxes and spurring economic growth.
Romney also chided Obama for cuts to current seniors’ Medicare advantage plans.
Romney said that he wants to introduce "competition into the Medicare world" by letting private plans compete with the government.
This was just one point at which Romney forcefully defended free trade and capitalism.
"The private market and individual responsibility always work best," Romney said.
Toward the end of the debate, Lehrer asked the two candidates what they believe the government’s role should be.
"The federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity," Obama said.
Romney appealed to the Declaration of Independence and rights from the "Creator" in describing the government’s role in society.
"I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country," Romney said. "The statement also says we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose."
Both candidates looked to the future in their closing statements.
Obama emphasized that he inherited a bad situation from the previous president, but said that America is improving.
The question now, he said: "How do we build on those strengths?"
Romney in his closing statement promised "12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes."
The election, Romney said, is "about the course of America."