DENVER — After months of dueling attack ads and long-distance sparring, President Obama and Mitt Romney outlined and dissected their competing plans to stimulate the sputtering economy on Wednesday night in the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election.
Each candidate, in pointed and specific arguments delivered from a University of Denver stage, used the biggest audience of the campaign to push his economic arguments as the better way to create jobs and to criticize the other’s as inadequate or based on faulty logic.
Obama said that Romney’s proposal to cut massive amounts of federal spending by closing tax loopholes and ending deductions is based on faulty “arithmetic” and would result in tax increases for middle-class families.
The president called for “a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best.”
Romney countered that Obama’s proposals would destroy 700,000 jobs in small business by raising taxes on upper-income people and that burdensome regulations have hurt America’s goal of energy independence.
“Governor Romney’s proposal, that’s he’s been promoting for 18 months, calls for a $5 trillion tax cut . . . and he’s been saying that he’ll pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions,” Obama said.
“The problem is he’s been asked 100 times” how he would pay for the tax cut without raising revenue, the president continued. “You don’t come close.”
Romney shot back that he has never asked for a $5 trillion tax cut over 10 years, and that he would not propose any tax cut that adds to the deficit.
Romney and Obama also disagreed vigorously over their contrasting approaches to handling the growing federal deficit, and whether taxes should be raised to solve the problem. Obama said revenue increases had to be part of the solution, and he chided Romney for saying during the Republican primary contest that he would not trade $10 in spending cuts for $1 in new revenue.
“Budgets reflect choices,” Obama said. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. If we ask for no revenue . . . [it] would end up resulting in severe hardship for people.”
“You raise taxes,” Romney responded, “and you kill jobs.”
Romney said instead, he would attempt to grow the economy and increase the number of taxpayers, providing more government funds as a result.
“Look, the revenue I get is by more people working, getting higher pay, paying more taxes,” he said. “That’s how we get growth and how we balance the budget.”
Romney also said he would more drastically cut programs.
“Obamacare’s on my list. I apologize, Mr. President,” Romney said. “I use that term with all respect, by the way.”
“I like it,” Obama replied. Later, he added, “I have become fond of this term, Obamacare.”
Obama also talked about changes to the tax code.
“Right now, you can actually take a deduction for moving a plant overseas,” Obama said. “I think most Americans would say, that doesn’t make sense.”
“Look, I’ve been in business 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Romney responded.
They also disagreed over Medicare, and what types of changes should be made to the long-standing federal program. Romney said he favors no changes for current recipients or near-retirees, but younger people would be offered a choice between a voucher or a government program, adding that he prefers a voucher system.
“I believe in competition,” he said.
“I don’t think vouchers are the right way to go,” said Obama, adding that the AARP agrees with him and stating that the system would not keep up with inflation and would therefore force seniors to pay more.
Asked if they could agree that there was a difference on Medicare, Romney said, “Absolutely” just as Obama said, “Yes.”
The debate began on a light note, with Obama wishing his wife Michelle, a happy anniversary. It was their 20th. He motioned to her, sitting in the front row, and promised that they would not celebrate their next anniversary before 40 million people.
Romney joked to Obama that “this is the most romantic place you could imagine” on your anniversary: “Here with me.”
The 90-minute debate was moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor of PBS NewsHour, and devoted to the nation’s struggling economy and other domestic issues. Following a coin toss, Obama received the first question. Romney was given the final word in a debate that was divided into six blocks of 15 minutes each.
The Romney campaign hopes to use the debate as a springboard to draw closer to Obama in many battleground states, where polls have shown the former Massachusetts governor trailing the president since their party conventions a month ago.
Obama maintains a slim advantage in many national polls — 49 to 47 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey — but his growing advantage in several swing states means that Romney’s pitch that he is best suited to turn around the economy must resonate soon.
That message is increasingly geared to a small slice of the electorate that remains undecided in the battleground states. In many ways, this debate was directed at them.
Obama and Romney spent the last hours before Wednesday’s debate paying attention to the smallest details that could impact the biggest event of the campaign so far.
They walked through the sports arena where they will debate beginning at 9 p.m. at the University of Denver.
They reviewed briefing books and policy positions. Aides and surrogates busied themselves by trying to lower expectations for their candidates.
Romney spent much of the day at his hotel on the outskirts of Denver, about 20 minutes from the university. Eric Fehrnstrom, an aide, said Romney set aside some “briefing time” with his staff, was “very relaxed,” and spent the remainder of the day with his wife, Ann, and other family members.
The debate was Romney’s 20th in this presidential campaign, but all of the others were against multiple opponents in the Republican primaries.
It was Romney’s first one-on-one debate, and the first time he has faced a Democrat, since his 2002 gubernatorial race against Shannon O’Brien.
Obama has not been in a debate since 2008, when he faced off against John McCain.
Each candidate had worked hard to refine their debate technique.
Obama drilled in practice sessions with Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has been a practice stand-in for Romney, to keep his answers concise and pointed. Critics have said the president has a tendency to be long-winded and professorial.
Obama arrived in Denver on Wednesday afternoon after spending three days of debate practice in Henderson, Nev., where he secluded himself at a resort outside Las Vegas that was hit hard by the housing collapse.
Romney worked with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who performed the same role for McCain in 2008.
Republican analysts have said that Romney’s challenge was to confront the president effectively, but to avoid being overly aggressive and to project a statesmanlike presence.
In the hours leading up to the debate, hundreds of journalists huddled inside a nearby hall where the anticipation built steadily.
Advisers to Romney and Obama strolled through, both touting their candidates and also praising the expected performance of their opponent.
Fehrnstrom downplayed the notion that the debate, the first of three between the candidates, is critical for Romney.
“You know, debates are important, but I don’t think by themselves they win elections,” Fehrnstrom said. “It’s important, but so is advertising, and so are visits to the battleground states.”
The candidates did not plan to rest after the debate. Obama was scheduled to speak at a campaign event in Denver on Thursday morning and address a rally in the afternoon at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Romney planned to fly to Virgina, where he was scheduled to speak at Fishersville with vice president candidate Paul Ryan.