Call Round One a tossup.
Ninety minutes of relentless, fast-paced debate Wednesday night between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney produced round after round of tit-for-tat with each man scoring points.
By standing toe-to-toe with the sitting president, Romney surely did himself some good, and he probably benefited from a set of low expectations heading into the first showdown.
In seven of the last nine debates, the challenger to the incumbent party candidate either held his own or picked up ground after the first debate. The average gain: 1.5 points in the polls.
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So Romney may enjoy a short-term surge in a race that, at least in national polls, remains extremely close.
But Obama, who some thought came across as stern and professorial, and Democrats can take comfort in a central idea: Romney, who trails by significant margins in some key battleground states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — needed to record a decisive win.
And that didn’t happen.
Both men came across as well-rehearsed, the result of months on the campaign trail, countless stump speeches and, in Romney’s case, a string of GOP debates earlier this year. They relied on lines that had been thoroughly vetted by staff and tested in focus groups. That contributed to the even exchange where neither candidate was able to stagger the other.
Today, Obama backers will insist their man won. Romney supporters will do the same. And both sides will be able to back it up.
Also noteworthy: no noticeable gaffes. And Romney’s promised set of zingers were almost nonexistent. One line that came closest was delivered late in the debate when Romney told the president that as the nation’s chief executive, he’s entitled to “his own airplane and his own house, but not his own facts.”
Obama countered a couple of minutes later when he chided Romney about the busy first day he’ll have as president. Not only did Romney promise to sit down with congressional leaders of both parties on that day, he also promised to repeal the health care plan at the same time.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was especially strong on health care and why his alternative to the president’s health care plan makes sense. One of his best points: A change this big requires support from members of both parties, which Obama never got when he pushed his plan.
“Something this big, this important, has to be done on a bipartisan basis,” Romney argued.
The president scored with a firm challenge to Romney’s tax plan, which he said, over and over again, is based on the failed policies of the Bush administration.
“Are we doing to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess?” Obama asked. “Or, do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle-class does best?”
The Republican candidate, he said, wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and roll back regulations. Romney, he claimed, would cut taxes by $5 trillion, extend the Bush tax cuts with another $1 trillion price tag, and boost military spending by $2 trillion.
“How we pay for that, reduce the deficit and make the investments we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign,” the president said.
But Romney, who wound up speaking for about four fewer minutes than Obama did, was his equal in outlining his own plan. He said he doesn’t have a $5 trillion tax cut, but instead wants to provide tax relief to the middle class and insisted he won’t “reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people” as the Democrats have charged.
Romney insisted that his tax plan would produce more jobs because he would come to the aid of small businesses that pay taxes at the individual tax rate. By cutting those taxes, he’ll help small businesses that now employ more than half of America’s workers.
Obama, he said, falls short in this area.
“For me, this is about jobs,” Romney said. “This is about getting jobs for the American people.”
The two also engaged in a give-and-take set of exchanges on Medicare, the health care program for the elderly that threatens to chew giant holes in the federal budget in the years to come.
Obama insisted that his plan to cut $716 billion in Medicare spending by “no longer overpaying insurance companies” will result in lower prescription-drug costs for seniors. He said Medicare recipients would pay $600 a year less.
But Romney countered that the Medicare program needs that $716 billion to continue its quality of care. He said he would preserve the program for future generations by offering a choice between the current program and private plans. And wealthy Americans would see fewer benefits.
“I know my own view is I’d rather have a private plan,” Romney said.
But Obama called that a voucher program and said only the big insurance companies would benefit if his health care program is repealed.
“And then what you’ve got is folks like my grandmother at the mercy of the private insurance system precisely at the time when they are most in need of decent health care,” he said.
That’s how it went all night. Give and take. Back and forth. A presidential debate stalemate.