DENVER — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney clashed over plans for taxes and creating jobs as they shared the stage for the first time Wednesday in a high-stakes debate with the power to reshape the race for the White House.
The showdown was critical for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. With five weeks to go before the election, polls show Obama leading in the most important states in what is a state-by-state vote that decides the presidency. Still, the race remains tight and the three debates this month give Romney an opportunity to shift the momentum, taking on Obama before a television audience of millions.
Wednesday’s debate might be the most important of the three, with its focus on domestic issues that have dominated the race. Romney has pointed to the weak U.S. economic recovery, arguing that Obama’s policies have failed and he doesn’t deserve another term.
“Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today,” Romney said.
Obama has argued that he prevented a meltdown after inheriting an economy in freefall from the Republican administration of George W. Bush. He says Romney would reinstate Bush-era policies that led to the financial crisis and help rich people, while hurting the poor and middle class.
In the opening minutes of the debate, Obama and Romney sparred over taxes. Obama accused Romney of wanting to “double down on the top-down policies” that led to the economic crash four years ago. Romney denied that and said that under Obama’s policies “middle income families are being crushed.”
But the debate began on a friendly note. The two 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 podiums. They faced questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.
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.”
Many commentators and viewers were sure to focus on the style and body language of the two candidates. Romney often comes across as stiff and distant, while Obama is seen as warmer and more empathetic with everyday Americans. Polls show that most people expect Obama to outperform him at the debate.
Though Election Day is more than a month away, many Americans have already started casting ballots because some states allow early voting. That puts extra pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.
The next two debates are Oct. 16 in New York and Oct. 22 in Florida.
Vice-President Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, have one debate, Oct. 11 in Kentucky.
But beyond the attention to the candidates’ mannerisms, this debate also provided a showcase for the candidates’ clear-cut difference in philosophies. Romney and fellow Republicans see the federal government as too big, taxing Americans excessively, running up deficits and hindering job creation through unnecessary regulations. Obama and his fellow Democrats see government as a potential force for good, providing the infrastructure and education needed in a dynamic economy and giving even poor Americans the opportunity to succeed.
In what has become an American political tradition, both campaigns have tried to lower expectations for their candidates’ performances in the debate, lavishing praise on their rival’s debating skills. And just as inevitably, they will declare their candidate the runaway winner just as soon as the debate ends — if not sooner.
Romney took part in 19 debates during the campaign for the Republican primary early in the year. Obama has not been onstage with a political opponent since his last face-to-face encounter with John McCain, his Republican rival in 2008.