Mitt Romney went for the jugular in the first presidential debate tonight, overwhelming a lacklustre President Barack Obama with a relentlessly forceful performance that could give a significant boost to his White House hopes.
The Republican challenger needed to put in a strong performance in the first presidential debate in Denver and he more than rose to the occasion with even some of Obama’s most dedicated supporters declaring him the clear winner.
Romney chided Obama for promising to halve America’s annual deficit but instead doubling it and even comparing him to a little boy who can’t tell the truth.
‘Look, I’ve got five boys,’ he said. ‘I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it.’
Hitting Obama with a blizzard of statistics, Romney also hit back hard at what he saw as the President mischaracterising his plans: ‘Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.’
Romney was at the top of his game from the outset, coming across as pithier and punchier than Obama, who seemed taken aback by being confronted so relentlessly and struggled to speak concisely. The challenger’s dominance came despite his having four minutes less talking time than the incumbent – Mr Romney spoke for 38 minutes and 32 seconds, while Mr Obama held the spotlight for 42 minutes and 50 seconds.
At the start, Obama tried to make the debate about the next four years rather than his four years in office, saying: ‘The question here tonight is not where we’ve been but where we’re going.’
But Romney pummelled him repeatedly on the state of the economy. ‘The people who are having the hard time right now are middle- income Americans. Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,’ he said.
‘They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a – this is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing.
‘At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up. Health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed.’
He added: ‘The President said that he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it.’
On his 20th anniversary, the President paid tribute to his wife Michelle in his first statement, saying: ’20 years ago I become the luckiest man on earth because Michelle agreed to marry me.’
In response, Mr Romney congratulated the couple and said: ‘I’m sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine – here with me!’
Mr Obama also started by attempting to divert the argument away from his record over the past four years and towards America’s prospects for the next four as he said the debate should concentrate ‘not on where we’ve been but on where we’re going’.
However, his Republican rival refused to let up, arguing that Mr Obama’s policies had been ‘crushing the middle class’.
While Mr Romney kept an aggressive stance, the President was surprisingly gentle on his opponent, failing to mention common attack lines such as Bain Capital, the notorious ’47 per cent’ video and Republican policies on women’s healthcare.
TAXATION – A $5TRILLION TAX CUT?
The President accused Mr Romney of planning a $5trillion tax cut which would go mostly to the rich, but the former governor of Massachusetts denied this, saying he would not enact any tax cut which would add to the deficit and characterising his plans as ‘tax relief for the middle class’.
Mr Obama criticised his rival for ruling out even $1 of tax rises to accompany $10 of spending cuts, but Mr Romney claimed he could raise extra revenue by boosting the economy as a whole. ‘The revenue I get is by more people working, and earning higher pay, and paying more taxes,’ he said.
The President also called for cuts in business allowances such as tax breaks for corporate airplanes, saying: ‘My attitude is that if you’ve got a corporate jet you can probably afford to pay full freight for it.’
The two predictably clashed from the start over the role of government in the economy. While the President described Mr Romney’s plans as ‘top-down economics’ which would benefit the wealthy, the challenger argued that Mr Obama’s economic agenda had primarily consisted of ‘trickle-down government’.
When it came to the question of the federal deficit, both strove to appear tough. Mr Obama insisted he was committed to cutting the deficit and paying down debt, but Mr Romney responded that the President was ‘not getting the job done’. He added: ‘You’ve been President for four years!’
The Republican also criticised Mr Obama for not accepting the conclusions of the Simpsons-Bowles commission on the deficit, and said that he should have pushed harder for Congress to fine-tune the bill. ‘The president said he’d cut the deficit in half,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, he doubled it.’
One line of attack was comparing the American economy to that of the struggling eurozone. Mr Romney said: ‘Spain spends 42 per cent of their total economy on government. We’re now spending 42 per cent of our economy on government. I don’t want to go down the path to Spain.’
BAIL-OUTS – HOW MUCH REGULATION IS TOO MUCH?
Mr Romney is a long-standing critic of the Dodd-Frank Act on financial reform, one of Mr Obama’s flagship pieces of legislation, and he did not let up during the debate. He particularly attacked the provisions naming five enormous banks as ‘too big to fail’, saying that provision was ‘the biggest boon to New York banks’ and would hurt smaller institutions.
While admitting that proper regulation was integral to a functioning economy, Mr Romney said that Dodd-Frank had ‘unintended consequences’ by loading on red tape which made it harder for small financial firms to operate succesfully.
But Mr Obama repeatedly insisted that the legislation would prevent a repeat of the 2008 crash, saying: ‘Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?‘
HEALTHCARE – OBAMA TUGS ON THE HEARTSTRINGS
The President used his personal history to bolster his arguments about Medicare and Social Security, talking about his grandmother who lived alone while a widow but who ‘could only [do it] because of Medicare and Social Security.’
He also insisted that the entitlement programes were ‘structurally sound’ and did not need radical reform – but Mr Romney countered that serious change was necessary to ensure that the plans are ‘there for the long term’.
Both promised that they would not cut benefits for older Americans but sharply disagreed about options for younger workers.
Obama says he is cutting down on excessive payments in the system so the program survives for future generations. Romney calls those cuts a slashing from seniors’ care to pay for Democrats’ health care law.
The pair aired their well-known disagreements over Obamacare – and when Mr Romney used that politically loaded term, he apologised to his opponent, who replied, ‘I like it.’
The Republican attacked the President for ‘spending two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs’, and claimed that business owners had told him they had had to stop offering insurance to their employees because of the controversial healthcare law.
Mr Romney suggested that his own Massachusetts reform should serve as a model for the nation as a whole – but Mr Obama pointed out that many of his law’s key provisions had been based on Mr Romney’s equivalent legislation.
SCHOOLS – WHO LOVES TEACHERS MORE?
Each candidate accused the other of planning to implement education cuts which would harm schools and lead to teachers being sacked.
Mr Obama said that Mr Romney would cut a fifth of the Education Department, but the challenger claimed that the President had diverted $90billion – enough to hire 2million teachers – into unproductive ‘green jobs’.
Mr Romney insisted, ‘I love teachers’, and showed a flash of bipartisanship as he praised some of the reforms put in place by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
There were also some moments of humour in the fierce debate – for example, when Mr Obama attacked Mr Romney’s policy on businesses by saying that, by the Republican’s definition, ‘Donald Trump is a small business – and I know Donald Trump doesn’t like to think of himself as small anything.’
Mr Romney also had his own jokes, as when he told moderator Jim Lehrer that he planned to defund his employer, PBS, apologising and saying: ‘I like Big Bird – I actually like you too.’
Both candidates also clashed with the veteran Mr Lehrer, as they happily ignored the time limits and went off-topic frequently.
At one point, at the end of an overlong statement, Mr Romney continued, ‘Let’s talk about…’ – but he was interrupted by the moderator saying: ‘Let’s not.’
And when Mr Lehrer told the President, ‘Two minutes is up, sir,’ Mr Obama replied: ‘No, I think I had five seconds before you interrupted me.’