DENVER -- President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney battled for 90 minutes Wednesday in detail-laden jousting over tax plans, health care and government regulation.
The first of their three debates took place on the campus of the University of Denver, moderated by veteran PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who often had a tough time keeping two well-prepared combatants to their topics and time limits.
The candidates entered flashing big smiles and exchanged a hearty handshake before the often wonkish policy clashes. Mr. Obama opened with an anniversary wish to his wife, Michelle, who watched from the front row along with Mr. Romney's wife, Ann. Mr. Romney kidded that the debate was a less than romantic setting for their celebration, a quip that highlighted the fact that he sometimes seemed to be having a better time on stage than the president.
The exchanges that followed reflected the fact that both candidates were performing a balancing act in trying to attack their opponent without appearing excessively caustic or aggressive. That dilemma was particularly acute for Mr. Romney, who entered the debate with the burden of a chronic disadvantage in his favorability ratings compared to the president. Both candidates maintained civil, even tones throughout the 90 minutes, but Mr. Romney, as the challenger, was more often the aggressor.
The candidates differed sharply on one another's tax plans; each man also disputed his opponent's description of his own plan.
Mr. Romney has said he will reduce all income tax rates by 20 percent, but avoid an unacceptable loss of revenue by eliminating unspecified deductions and preferences in the current tax code. Mr. Obama characterized that as a $5 trillion tax cut, which he said would both favor the wealthy and vastly increase the deficit. Mr. Romney insisted that the $5 trillion figure was not accurate. He contended his proposal would produce economic growth and resulting revenue to counteract the need for the kinds of spending cuts Mr. Obama said would be inevitable.
The Republican also argued that Mr. Obama's call for an increase in taxes on wealthier Americans would cost jobs. Mr. Obama denied that, noting that the vast majority of smaller business would not pay the top rate. But Mr. Romney said that the small percentage that would be affected account for the bulk of the jobs in the small business sector.
Mr. Obama argued that the tax and employment analysis that Mr. Romney suggested was at odds with recent history. He noted that under former President Clinton tax rates had been similar to his proposals, and yet the nation's job picture was much healthier than under the Bush administration when the economy lagged despite a succession of tax cuts.
"We've tried both approaches,'' Mr. Obama said, calling Mr. Romney's argument "the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003 ... [that culminated ] in the worst economic crisis since the great Depression.
"Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate,'' Mr. Romney said. "I will not reduce the share paid by high income individuals.''
The exchanges on Medicare were a continuation of one of the campaign's more persistent disputes. The Affordable Health care Act -- Obamacare in the term coined by Republicans and lately embraced by Democrats, including Mr Obama Wednesday night, takes $710 billion from projected rate of growth of payment to hospitals and insurers and devotes it instead to the costs of the new law, including increased prescription coverage for seniors.
That was the basis of a charge Republicans used effectively against Democrats in 2010 as the GOP accused them of "robbing Medicare,'' an attack line that helped them recapture the House, and one that Mr. Romney returned to repeatedly last night.
Mr. Obama defended his legislation and turned the attack on Mr. Romney as he said his plan to partially shift Medicare to a voucher plan for younger citizens would place seniors at risk and eventually lead to the ruin of traditional Medicare system that would exist alongside the private plans that Mr. Romney envisions.
The debate came as Mr. Obama appeared to hold a narrow lead nationally and more significant advantages in most of the key states expected to determine the election. The weeks since the two party conventions have not been kind to Mr. Romney on the polling front, although recent days have brought some evidence of movement in his direction.
Gallup's daily tracking poll showed the president leading 49 percent to 45 percent on the evening of the encounter, while Rasmussen saw a slightly closer race, 49 percent to 47 percent. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found the national race at 49 percent for Mr. Obama and 46 percent for Mr. Romney, a margin down slightly from the five-point race the same poll found in mid-September. The National Journal, meanwhile found the national race dead even at 47 percent apiece.
In the state by state competition, however, Mr. Obama held a stronger hand with just over a month before election day. Ohio increasingly seemed to be joining its Pennsylvania neighbor as a traditional battleground slipping into the Democratic column. But new surveys in Virginia and Florida suggested some tightening, cutting into the president's persistent but narrow leads there.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1562. First Published October 4, 2012 4:00 AM