DENVER — Claiming he’s the true champion of a middle class that’s being “crushed” under President Obama, Mitt Romney went straight at the president Wednesday in the first debate of the campaign, saying his four years in office have doubled the deficit and left the economy gasping.
Mr. Obama countered that Mr. Romney is hiding key parts of his plans from voters, but said from what he’s seen, the Republican nominee would take government back to Bush administration policies that led to the 2008 recession.
Mr. Obama said he’s done what he could in his first four years —drescuing the auto industry and beginning to add jobs — but quickly shifted, saying he wants to look forward, not backward.
“We all know that we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And so the question here tonight is not where we’ve been, but where we’re going,” he said. “Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skewed towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations, that we’ll be better off.”
Like challengers before him, Mr. Romney benefitted from being on the same stage as the president in the 90-minute sparring match, broadcast to a national audience, that underscored the deep policy differences between the two men — probably the biggest divide between presidential candidates in a generation.
Unlike Mr. Obama, who said he wanted to look forward, Mr. Romney repeatedly pointed back to the last four years, laying a devastating litany of failures on Mr. Obama’s doorstep.
“What we’re seeing right now is a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than people pursuing their dreams. It’s not working,” he said. “And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work. The proof of that is one out of six people in poverty. The proof of that is we’ve gone from 32 million on food stamps to 47 million on food stamps. The proof of that is 50 percent of college graduates this year can’t find work. We know that the path we’re taking is not working. It’s time for a new path.”
The early reviews were far kinder to Mr. Romney than to the president.
“It looked like Romney wanted to be there, and Obama looked like he didn’t want to be there,” James Carville, a Democratic strategist who advised President Clinton, said on CNN.
And a CNN flash poll of registered voters who watched the debate found 67 percent thought Mr. Romney won to 25 percent for Mr. Obama.
A separate CBS poll of undecided voters also give Mr. Romney’s performance a decisive edge, 46 percent to 22 percent, with the rest saying it was a tie.
The Republican had the bigger challenge coming in. He trails in the polls, and voters say they don’t know as much about him and find him less likable than Mr. Obama.
With that context, Mr. Romney labored to portray himself as the defender of the middle class, and to overcome the video released last month that showed him telling wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans are “victims” receiving government benefits.
“I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about,” he told the president. “My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.”
The Republican told stories of middle-class Americans he’s met on the campaign trail who are struggling, and he blamed Mr. Obama’s policies for their plight. He even used the word “buried” — playing off a gaffe of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said earlier in the week that the middle class had been “buried” in the past four years.
Mr. Obama never mentioned the “47 percent” video — an omission that shocked strategists who said the president was missing major opportunities to dent the Republican.
Instead, Mr. Obama repeatedly attacked Mr. Romney for refusing to specify what tax breaks he’ll eliminate in order to make the math on his tax plan add up.
And Mr. Romney did not offer any new details, instead flatly vowing that he won’t allow the rich to get tax cuts at the expense of the middle class.
Mr. Obama said it was becoming a pattern for the Republican candidate to hide the details of his proposals.
“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 secret because they’re too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?” he quipped.
But Mr. Romney was brutally clear on some specific budget cuts he’d make — including axing funding for PBS, telling debate moderator and long-time PBS newsman Jim Lehrer.
“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for,” he said.
As the debate began, the two men shook hands and exchanged what appeared to be friendly words. Mr. Obama then began his opening remarks by speaking to his wife, Michelle, who was in the audience and with whom he was celebrating his 20th anniversary.
“A year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people,” he promised her.
“I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine — here with me,” Mr. Romney quipped.