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Obama, Romney battle over economic policies in first presidential debate

Mitt Romney took President Obama to task Wednesday night for an economy that has sputtered while moving millions onto government assistance, using his first general election face-off to chip away at the narrative that Obama’s presidency is working for the middle class.

Echoing the words of Vice President Biden earlier in the week, Romney said: “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried.”

Obama, though, sustained the drumbeat at their kick-off debate in Denver that his opponent is promising a return to failed policies that would boost the privileged and burden the working class. He slammed Romney for wanting to turn Medicare into a “voucher” system, repeal the federal health care overhaul and allegedly push a tax cut for top earners.

Each candidate strived throughout the 90-minute debate to appeal to the middle-class voters who likely will decide the election five weeks from now. While Romney accused Obama of pushing “trickle-down government,” Obama accused Romney of wanting to “double down on the top-down policies” that led to the financial crisis.

The debate, which focused exclusively on domestic matters, was heavy on policy details and light on zingers. It was one of three presidential debates set for October and marked Romney’s first opportunity to go toe to toe with the president.

The debate was tense at times, with the candidates standing just feet from each other and often cutting off the moderator, PBS' Jim Lehrer. Romney appeared to take a consistently more aggressive tone on stage, though the overall tenor of the debate marked a step back from what has become a bitter and nasty campaign in the closing weeks.

Each candidate came armed with studies and stats to bolster his respective position – but the central goal was to broaden their appeal before a national audience hurting for jobs and make the case for why their plans would boost growth.

Obama argued that the issue to consider is not “where we’ve been” but “where we’re going.”

“We’ve begun to fight our way back,” Obama said. He accused Romney of wanting to roll back regulations and implement tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy and reverse those gains.

But Romney, citing the millions who have gone on food stamps and hit the unemployment lines in the last four years, argued that “the status quo is not going to cut it.”

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

He said Obama’s push to raise taxes on top earners amounts to a tax on the very small businesses needed for a robust economic recovery.

“You raise taxes and you kill jobs,” Romney said. “I don’t want to kill jobs in this environment.”

On taxes, though, Romney sought to wipe away the caricature that the Obama campaign has been drawing these last two years – of Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire who’s looking to make the rich richer with his tax cut plan.

Obama again argued Wednesday night that the Republican nominee is pushing a $5 trillion tax cut plan that would skew toward the wealthy. To offset that, Obama claimed, Romney would have to either add to the deficit or raise the burden on the middle class.

“It’s math, it’s arithmetic,” Obama said

Romney, though, insisted the 20 percent across-the-board rate cut he’s pushing is not nearly as sweeping as the president describes.

“I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney said. Further, he pledged to hold to his promise that it would be deficit-neutral and not hurt the middle class.

“There’ll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that – no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” Romney said. He added: “I will not under any circumstance raise taxes on middle-income families.”

Romney addressed his tax plan after saying in an interview that one way to offset the rate cut would be to cap deductions at perhaps $17,000 – and have taxpayers choose what deductions they want to take. The details may have been meant to undercut the Obama campaign’s claims that he has not been specific.

The president, though, repeatedly hammered Romney at the debate for allegedly hiding the details of several plans – from his proposals for implementing tax reform to his plans for replacing “ObamaCare.”

“At some point I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace (the health care law) secret, because they’re too good?” Obama said sarcastically.

Obama adamantly defended the health care law, saying he’s warmed to the term “ObamaCare.” He denied that it was a “takeover” of health care and warned against repealing it as Romney wants to do. 

On taxes, Romney also knocked Obama for returning to a call for closing tax breaks for oil and gas companies as part of his deficit reduction plan. Romney said the $90 billion in aid to green energy companies amounts to “about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.” Still, Romney said, he’d be willing to put cutting the oil industry breaks “on the table” if overall rates go down.

Romney also had a quick retort when Obama suggested Romney wanted to cut education spending.

“Mr. President, you're entitled as a president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts. All right, I'm not going to cut education funding,” he said.

The debate in Denver fell against the backdrop of a sputtering economic recovery and rising U.S. debt. While Romney used these factors to argue Obama does not deserve a second term, the president again made the case that he’s still cleaning up the mess from the prior administration and needs four more years to finish the job.

The campaigns carefully managed expectations in the run-up to the debate.

Obama's advisers claimed Romney arrived with practice from the primary season under his belt. Romney's advisers noted Obama was the only one on stage with any general election debate experience. 

But Romney’s campaign cranked up its attacks in advance of the faceoff. Republicans seized on a comment by Biden in North Carolina Tuesday in which he said the middle class has been "buried" over the last four years. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan pointed to the admission as proof of what they've been arguing all along.

Romney arguably had the most to gain out of Tuesday’s performance. Though competitive with Obama in national polls, he's been slipping in key battlegrounds. The debate was a chance for him to close that gap, and potentially benefit simply from being on the same stage as the president. 

The two candidates debate next on Oct. 16 and for the last time on Oct. 22. The only vice presidential debate is set for Oct. 11.