As President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney walked on stage for their first mano-a-mano encounter, political observers had two questions. Would Mitt Romney, very much in need of a jolt, offer enough specifics and pre-planned zingers to turn the already high-stakes event into a game changer for his campaign? Could Obama emulate Bill Clinton's example on how to artfully frame an argument that makes his point and keep his opponent on the defense by pushing for specifics?
Either way, the night of political theater was destined to not disappoint.
The debate's theme was domestic policy, with segments on the economy, health care and the role of government in Americans' lives, all hot-button issues.
Obama, who had the first word, made clear from the start that he would continue his re-election team's months-long campaign to paint Romney as a cold-hearted businessman with no empathy for or even a remote understanding of what struggling Americans must do to survive in hard times.
With a prime-time television audience likely counted in the tens of millions, moderator Jim Lehrer was pressed at time to enforce time limits on the two rivals. The president occasionally shook his head as Romney talked over Lehrer.
And Romney virtually lectured Obama at one point after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funds. "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts."
Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, repeal Obama's health care plan, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits — but he provided no specifics despite Obama's prodding.
Said Obama: "At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good? Because middle class families benefit too much? No."
At times the debate turned into rapid-fire charges and retorts that drew on dense facts and figures that were difficult to follow. The men argued over oil industry subsidies, federal spending as a percentage of the GDP, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.
Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and didn't hesitate to interrupt the president or the moderator.
Despite the wonky tone of the debate, Romney managed to make some points by personalizing his comments with recollections of people he said he had met on the campaign trail. In another folksy reference, Romney told Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS even though "I love Big Bird."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
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