Romney energizes campaign with feisty debate performance

Mitt Romney energized his campaign for president Wednesday night, charging out of his first debate having, by most accounts from both sides of the political spectrum, dominated President Obama in a standoff for which he was evidently well-prepared.

The Republican nominee was quick on his feet, polished and feisty as he repeatedly cut off the moderator and challenged his opponent on the facts. His central argument -- that Obama's economic policies have consigned the middle class to an eroding "status quo."

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

Liberal pundits and supporters of the president expressed disappointment coming out of the debate, while conservatives were ecstatic.

Romney heads next to the battleground of Virginia on Thursday, while Obama heads to Wisconsin following a rally in the debate-state of Colorado. It's unclear whether Romney's performance will move the polls, but he was clearly looking for a race-shaking performance having slipped in recent weeks in several swing-state surveys.

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Obama, though, fought Wednesday night to cast Romney as bad for working Americans. 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 his 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 Gov. 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.

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.

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.