With everything to gain, Republican challenger Mitt Romney brought his energy level up, taking the aggressive stance. You could not help but notice that President Barack Obama looked a bit more tired and certainly older than in his faceoffs against Sen. John McCain four years ago. It will be interesting to see if the areas where they overlapped on goals cost the candidates any enthusiasm among the more ideological parts of their parties -- Romney on the right, Obama on the left. Obama's claim about the Romney tax program will be gone over in the next few days.
It looked as if Romney, who was battered by rivals in the primaries, was more ready and psyched for a one-on-one verbal fight and Obama, who did not face a primary, had a practiced but less urgent approach. There will also be a bit of media yak about Obama sounding a bit more testy when cut off by the moderator. Will that matter? Tough to say.
The presidential candidates tangled over issues, and called each other's statements misleading in the most civil ways, and they got to bring their campaign slogans into the same room. You got the impression that this was only an acceleration of the same themes they've been pressing already: Romney talks of the need to change course, Obama puts his best polish on what's happened in the past four years.
Obama closes with expected pieties. He talks of the pride of building cars in Toledo and Detroit (swing states!) and his unshaken faith in the people of the United States. A fair shot, an opportunity to succeed, everyone playing by the same rules. He says he's kept promises and if you vote for him he'll fight just as hard in the second term.
Romney says their two paths lead in different directions. If Obama is elected, incomes go down. He'll help the middle class. If he's elected, no Obamacare and "allow each state to craft their own programs to get people insured .?.?." He repeats differences on Medicare. He warns of "dramatic cuts to our military” that he won't have if elected.
Romney says as president he must work on a collaborative basis with both major parties. "Republicans and Democrats both love America . . . but we need leadership .?.?." he speaks of scary times in the Middle East.
Obama says he'll take ideas from anyone. That's how trade deals were made, the Iraq War ended, don't-ask-don't-tell repealed. Yes, Obama says, he had fights that were necessary, and you have to "be willing to say no to things." Romney hasn't said no to "some of the more extreme parts of his own party."
And they are invited to wrap up.
This matter of asking the candidates if they disagree or agree on essential issues produces answers that frame the attacks already done on the campaign trail, but in a civil way. Obama suggests in guarded terms that Romney doesn't care so much about less privileged people.
Romney zinger: Obama gets his own house and own airplane but the presidency doesn't entitle him to his own facts -- a reworking of the old Sen. Moynihan saying about how you're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. He links money blown on "green energy” programs to money that could have hired hundreds of teachers.
Obama talks about the federal government helping people up the ladder, with education. He notes that Lincoln pushed to finish the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War. He talks of hiring 10,000 math and science teachers to make goals. "Gov. Romney doesn't think we need more teachers, I do." A better-trained workforce will create jobs, he says.
Romney says the key to great schools are great teachers, and Massachusetts has been No. 1. "The role of government is to promote and protect the principles” of the Declaration and the Constitution. "We are endowed by our Creator with our rights." He says that means religious tolerance should be stood by. He says now government thinks it can do a better job "than free people pursuing their dreams," and thus poverty and unemployment. "It's time for a new path." He calls for school choice.
Obama accuses Romney of not specifying what would replace Dodd-Frank, what would replace Obamacare, etc.
Romney cites how well Tip O'Neill, the House speaker, worked with President Ronald Reagan.
Romney whacks Obama on swiping away state rights.
There are no great surprises in message here.
Are there differences, Lehrer asks, in their views of federal government in a basic way?
Obama says progress is there -- health care premiums are going up slower in the past two years than any time in the last 50. He says by repealing Obamacare, 50 million people could lose insurance without an explanation how to replace it.
Romney says he agrees with Obama that the key task is to get the cost down. He says Obama calls for an appointed board, unelected, in government, to impose cost restrictions. Romney says he consulted with hospitals and health care providers who have initiative and creativity. Mayo Clinic. for example, does this kind of things well -- an attack on mandating what patients and doctors can do on treatment.
The boards, Obama says, cannot in fact do that. "What your plan does is to duplicate what's already in the law," which is you can get continuous coverage if you're out of work for 90 days. "That doesn't help millions out there with pre-existing conditions."
They tangle over Obamacare.
Romney leads with businessmen giving up health insurance (he mentions one in swing-state Wisconsin) because of the costs. He makes his brief against Obamacare.
Obama goes into his defensive spin mode with explanations of the ins and outs of market. He looks a bit sly when interrupted by Lehrer and says "I had five seconds before you interrupted me .?.?." He goes on for more than five seconds. "We have a system where...we have an opportunity to bring down costs."
Romney says he is proud of Romneycare because it was bipartisan -- unlike Obamacare which was done when the Senate and House were both Democratic, which changed in 2010 with the GOP Congress. "We have to have a president who can reach across the aisle."
Obama replies: "I agree that Democratic legislators in Mass. could have given some advice to Republicans in Congress on how to cooperate." There are ways, he says, of making health care more effective.
Obama goes back to the alleged evils of a voucher system and cites AARP's opposition to it. Romney says the private sector generally does better with cost efficiency than the government.
Obama says a voucher program for Medicare would harm seniors because they couldn't keep up with health care inflation. He says Romney has been too vague on the exact program. As he continues his critique, Romney smiles.
Romney: "What I support is no change for current retirees...and the president supports taking $716 billion from Medicare. Romney has not used the word repeal yet. Lower benefits for higher-income people, he says. The idea for competition in the medical world was from Clinton world, he says.
Obama says Social Security is structurally sound and says he presumes Romney sees things that way. Obama goes into biography talking about his grandmother being able to retire because of Social Security. "These are people who work hard like my grandmother .?.?." In Medicare, $716 billion saved by "no longer overpaying insurance companies."
Romney says "neither the president nor I are proposing changes” for current seniors, but about future retirees. Romney says the $716 billion hurts current recipients, is a unilateral chop from the federal government (he repeats the figure) as the cost of "Obamacare," a term the president said he does not mind.
Obama says we shouldn't be allowing firms to take tax deductions for sending jobs overseas. Asking for "no revenue” would slash programs in a way that would run counterproductive to the economy. He contrasts "numbers on a sheet of paper” with parents with an autistic child.
Romney replies in part that Obama gave huge breaks to "green energy” and mentions the Solyndra fiasco in terms of energy investment. He challenges the "overseas” job shipping claim by Obama. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Romney says, suggesting that maybe he should get a new accountant. Good line, anyway, but it still keeps him as the well-off exec which might not help.
"But you've been president four years," Romney says. "We still show trillion dollar deficits each year." He says the economy is still going slow as it was when Obama said that at such a time you don't want to raise taxes on people. "You raise taxes and you kill jobs .?.?."
Obama says, "We had this discussion before...There has to be revenue in addition to cuts. Gov. Romney has ruled out revenue."
Romney says, the goal is to grow the economy to cut the deficit and grow revenues. "I don't want to go down the path to Spain," Romney says.
Obama talks of "balanced, responsible approach” and the need to address corporate taxes. This allows him to talk about big company deductions, and ask if Exxon needs extra money. Populist reach.
Romney says Obama doubled and did not half the deficit as promised. He says it is immoral to pass this problem on to future generations.
Obama blames the previous administration for unpaid wars and economic crisis. He said emergency measures were necessary, and cites dozens of programs he said were scrapped to save money. He cites "50 billion dollars of waste taken out of the system." Try tracking that figure.
Obama links his approach to Clinton's, and Romney's to Bush's, and says essentially the Romney plan defies common sense. Romney repeats: It's not a $5 trillion tax cut, he wants to put people back to work. More are now on food stamps than when the president took office. The status quo, he says, "is not going to cut it for the American people today."
Next question: What are the differences on deficit reduction?
Obama cites ex-Pres. Bill Clinton's name on taxes and echoes Clinton's convention speech that it's a matter of arithmetic. Under Romney's approach, he claims, Donald Trump is a small business and he knows Trump doesn't think of himself as a small anything. We're investing, he says, in all that helps America grow.
Romney: "Mr. President...." In the 3 percent top businesses, they make up a big percentage of the jobs in small business. "Your plan is to take the tax rate on successful small businesses from 35 to 40 percent." He argues that it would cost jobs. The best way to budget balance, he says, is get people working and paying taxes.
Obama, acknowledging the question is way over time, and says Romney's plan is against math, common sense and history.
Both men smirk to project a skeptical "there you go again” indulgence when the other speaks. Romney has a red striped tie, Obama a blue tie. Both have American flag pins.
Romney says he won't put in place a tax plan that adds to the deficit. He says Obama is repeating untruths. "I will not reduce taxes on high income Americans." Oddly, he says he has five boys and is accustomed to hearing things repeated in hopes that he's convinced they're true. That gets a grin from Obama.
Obama: "Now, five weeks before the election, he says his big bold idea is, 'Never mind.'"
9:12 p.m.: Romney accuses Obama of "trickle-down government” and addresses him as "the president," which may or may not be a tactical mistake. Obama, answering, moves for the center -- says school strategies included both parties' input, says he too thinks there should be lower taxing, and calling for reducing the federal deficit. "Gov. Romney's central economic plan” calls for $5 trillion in tax cuts and defense spending increases the military hasn't asked for.
In turn, Romney says he doesn't have a $5 trillion tax cut and speaks of middle class being crushed by taxes, health care costs, food prices.
Romney also hits Obama on energy policy failing.
9:08 p.m.: Obama says the question is where we're going. He accuses Romney of believing that if we give tax cuts to the wealthy, it will be a productive economic policy. He urges a "new economic patriotism."
To Obama's intro about congratulating his wife on their anniversary, Romney banters about how romantic it is for him to be with Romney. And the Republican begins his pitch for "a different path" -- better schools, crack down on China, improve the budget, and champion small business.
9:01 p.m.: Jim Lehrer is announcing the format structure. "The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent." Yeah, right. Now he welcomes the combatants. Obama does the shake-and grab, says something to Romney and they smile.
First question: What are the major differences between the two of you in creating jobs?
Remember: Tonight's debate offers challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama their first face-to-face chance to throw around lots of statistics and cite trends and describe moods and state facts with apparent authority, all with their body language and gestures and tone under microscopic inspection. Their embellishments, fudging and misstatements will be pounced on by the opposition and interpreted and spun afterward by both impartial observers and partisan cheerleaders.
As always, watching a high-stakes debate has some of the element of a professional sports match -- but only to the extent that you don't know in advance who might stumble or who might force the other person into a corner. Unlike an athletic event, however, the scoring is entirely subjective and the "win” or "loss” is up to the millions of viewers in the audience. As a result, the hackneyed search for "knockout blows” often proves a futile errand, but anything particularly unusual, funny or emphatic will make the highlights reels.