DENVER (AP) — Primed for a showdown, President Barack Obama accused Republican rival Mitt Romney in campaign debate Wednesday night of wanting to “double down on the top-down policies” that led to a devastating economic downturn four years ago. Countered the challenger: “That’s not what I’m going to do.”
Romney rebutted the president from a few feet away on the stage of their first debate, declaring that under Obama’s policies “middle income families are being crushed.”
The clash took place in the opening moments of a national televised debate before tens of millions of voters with the power to settle the 2012 race for the White House — a campaign that polls suggest tilts Obama’s way despite lingering high unemployment and only sluggish economic growth.
The two campaign 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.
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.”
The debate was the first of three for the candidates. By agreement between the rival campaigns, it was focused on the economy and other domestic issues.
Jim Lehrer of PBS drew moderator’s duties, with Obama getting the first question and Romney the last word.
Five weeks before Election Day, early voting is under way in scattered states and beginning in more every day. Opinion polls show Obama with an advantage nationally and in most if not all of the battleground states where the race is most likely to be decided.
That put particular pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.
The sputtering economy served as the debate backdrop, as it has for virtually everything else in the 2012 campaign for the White House. Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a turnaround that hasn’t materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he took office.
The customary security blended with a festival-like atmosphere in the surrounding area on a warm and sunny day. The Lumineers performed for free, and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am delivered a pep talk of sorts to Obama’s supporters. School officials arranged to show the debate on monitors outside the hall for those without tickets.
There was local political theater, too, including female Romney supporters wearing short shorts and holding signs that said, “What War On Women?” — a rebuttal to claims by Obama and the Democrats.
Both campaigns engaged in a vigorous pre-debate competition to set expectations, each side suggesting the other had built-in advantages.
Romney took part in 19 debates during the campaign for the Republican primary early in the year. The president has not been onstage with a political opponent since his last face-to-face encounter with Arizona Sen. John McCain, his Republican rival in 2008.
Obama and Romney prepared for the evening with lengthy practice sessions. Romney selected Ohio Sen. Rob Portman as a stand-in for the president; Obama turned to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to play the Republican role.
The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. Both men have already begun holding practice sessions.
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