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Confident Romney puts Obama on defensive in first debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2012 - WASHINGTON – A feisty and well-prepared Mitt Romney – brushing aside objections to some of his facts and his lack of specifics – aggressively challenged President Barack Obama on a range of domestic issues Wednesday evening in their first debate.

Jobs, taxes, federal deficits and health care dominated the discussions during the hour and a half session in Denver. The at times professorial Obama accused his Republican opponent of being evasive in the details on some key proposals in ways that gave the misleading impression that they would help – not hurt – the middle class.

“At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good?” Obama asked rhetorically. “Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”

But declaring that “the status quo is not going to cut it,” Romney sought to widen his appeal to the debate’s millions of viewers by going on the offensive as he sparred with Obama on a range of issues, using every opportunity to stress the need to fix the economy and put more Americans back to work.

While Obama avoided going on the attack with issues that his campaign ads have deployed – such as Romney’s “47 percent” remark to fundraisers, his refusal to release some tax returns and the impact of his work at Bain Capital – Romney did not hesitate in blasting the president on the economy and the size of the debt.

At one point, Romney -- seeking to refute Obama’s claim that the former Massachusetts governor would cut education funding – shot back: “Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts.”

With some quick surveys indicating that a majority of viewers felt Romney had won the debate – or at least did better than expected – Republicans predicted that the Denver event would change the trajectory of the campaign, which had leaned in Obama’s direction last month after a series of missteps by the GOP nominee.

Romney “did exactly what he had to do” in the debate, said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who had been the GOP nominee’s sparring partner in debate-prep sessions. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, a senior adviser to Romney on defense, also was in Colorado for the debate. He sent a Tweet asserting that Romney “clearly won the debate tonight by laying out his vision for America and support for free enterprise.”

But even though some Democrats conceded that it hadn’t been Obama’s best debate performance, they insisted that the president had done well – and there would be plenty of time to polish his approach in two more debates later this month.

Obama’s senior political adviser, David Plouffe, told reporters after the debate that “we don’t believe in decisive moments.” Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that Obama “did a wonderful job.” But Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, admitted that Romney had scored well on preparation and “style points.”

Even so, Obama's surrogates accused Romney of repeating misleading facts, failing to provide details of his major plans, and misstating aspects of Obama’s initiatives. Romney was “not being honest” in how he described his plans on taxes, the deficit, health care and other issues, Cutter told a CNN reporter.

While fact-checking groups were pouring over the debate statements late Wednesday, Obama surrogates pointed out several questionable assertions by Romney, including his oft-repeated argument that the Affordable Care Act would “cut” $716 billion from Medicare – even though in reality it calls for that amount of savings to be achieved through efficiencies over 10 years.

Other Romney statements challenged by Democrats included his denial that his tax-cut proposals would cost about $5 trillion; his insistence that his deficit-reduction plan would not cut Pell Grants or the education budget; and his claim that Obamacare would in effect raise taxes by a trillion dollars over a decade.

But Romney accused Obama of misrepresenting Romney's tax plan, which seems to have changed a bit in recent weeks. The president asserted that Romney’s plan to cut all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion, benefiting the rich at the expense of middle-income taxpayers.

Romney countered: “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.” He said the president’s plan to allow the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on income over $250,000 would mean tax increases on job-creating small businesses.

Facts and fiction aside, most analysts and commentators seemed to agree after the debate that Romney had made the best impression by appearing animated, confident and energized. While Obama had a clear command of details, he at times came across as defensive, annoyed or condescending

“It looked like Romney wanted to be there, and President Obama didn’t want to be there,” said former Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville on CNN, asserting that the president “didn’t bring his A Game” to the debate.

NBC political guru Chuck Todd judged it “a big night for Mitt Romney,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer echoed that comment, and former White House communications adviser David Gergen pronounced it “the best debate so far” for Romney.

A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters found that 46 percent thought Romney won; 32 percent said it was a tie; and only 22 percent called Obama the clear winner. A CNN survey of 430 registered voters who watched the debate found that 67 percent judged Romney the winner, while only 25 percent picked Obama.

The stakes in the debate were higher for Romney, who had fallen behind in surveys of several of the nine key swing states, and Republicans contended Thursday night that his self-assured performance in the debate – under a format that encouraged free-form discussion rather than quick sound bites – will help turn around that discouraging trend.

In the end, Obama actually spoke for about four more minutes than Romney in the 90-minute debate moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who got decidedly mixed reviews for failing to rein in some of the responses.

The two candidates tried to outdo one another in appealing to the middle class, citing dueling studies on the impact of their respective tax plans on the middle class, accusing the other of a plan that would hike those taxes.

To illustrate his point about how the economy was hurting business, Romney cited a small businessman in St. Louis – in the “electronics business” – who feels overburdened by taxes, regulations and health-care expenses. [ UPDATE: The Post-Dispatch later identified the businessman as Michael Bonadio, who owns Reason Amplifier Co. in St. Peters. END UPDATE]

While the candidates’ sparring over Obamacare followed the same trajectory of previous campaign statements, Romney seemed to score points when he accused the president of spending too much “energy and passion” on health care reform rather than focusing more on job creation during his first two years in office.

And Romney, trying to soften the blow when he suggested cutting federal subsidies to PBS (where Lehrer works), said he made that tough call even though “I love Big Bird.”

While he wasn’t always in a combative mode, Obama also had some strong lines, such as one when asserted that Romney kept revising his economic and tax plan, so that “his big, bold idea is: Never mind.”  

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