* Romney zeroes in on weak economic growth
* Obama says Romney tax plan doesn't add up
* Snap poll gives debate edge to Romney
DENVER, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney battled back in his
uphill drive to oust President Barack Obama on Wednesday with an
aggressive debate performance that put his campaign on a more
positive footing after weeks of stumbles and knocked Obama
In the first of three presidential debates this month,
Romney went beyond expectations as the two candidates stood
side-by-side for the first time after months of campaigning
against each other from long distance.
Looking to claw his way back into a race that has seen Obama
hold an edge among voters, Romney was on the offensive
throughout the 90-minute encounter with Obama. While the
president landed some punches on Romney's tax plan, he did not
appear as prepared as his rival and missed several opportunities
With under five weeks to go until the Nov. 6 election, it
was uncertain whether Romney had managed to change the
trajectory of a race that has favored Obama. It is difficult to
dislodge an incumbent from the White House. In recent weeks,
Romney has lurched from stumble to stumble and been unable to
project a consistent message.
"How does it translate into the horse race? That's unclear,"
said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton
College in Minnesota. "Romney should have some momentum. The
question is whether he can maintain it."
But there was no question that Romney's campaign felt it was
now in a better position. In the "spin room" afterward, Romney
advisers hung around for 90 minutes talking to reporters, long
after the Obama side had decamped.
A CNN/ORC snap poll said 67 percent of registered voters
surveyed thought Romney won the debate at the University of
Denver, compared with 25 percent for Obama.
Romney and Obama clashed repeatedly over taxes, healthcare
and the role of government in ways that reflected the deep
ideological divide in Washington and that has contributed to
Romney zeroed in on weak economic growth and 8.1 percent
unemployment that have left Obama vulnerable in his effort to
win a second four-year term. Government has taken on too big a
role under Obama, dampening job creation, Romney argued.
"What we're seeing right now, in my view, (is) a
trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking
it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams.
And it's not working. And the proof of that is 23 million people
out of work," Romney said.
Fact checkers took issue with some of assertions by the
former Massachusetts governor, like the number of people
unemployed, but he appeared more poised and better prepared than
Obama argued that under his leadership, the economy had been
brought back from the brink, with 5 million jobs created in the
private sector, a resurgent auto industry and housing beginning
"You know, four years ago, we were going through a major
crisis. And yet my faith and confidence in the American future
is undiminished," Obama said.
NO MENTION OF THE '47 PERCENT'
Mysteriously, Obama failed to mention issues his campaign
has used in attack ads to damage Romney such as the Republican's
now infamous "47 percent" video, job cuts he made while at Bain
Capital private equity firm, his tax returns and previous hard
line on immigration.
The debate saw no haymaker punches thrown and not much in
the way of memorable one-line zingers. Instead, it was a war of
attrition as each man used facts and figures to make his points
and stress the differences between them.
Romney, however, did himself some favors with crisper
answers than Obama, who sounded professorial and a bit
long-winded despite his staff's best efforts to get him to give
Quite often Obama looked downward at his notes as Romney
pounced on the president's record. At one point, the Democrat
quibbled with debate moderator Jim Lehrer who tried to cut him
off for going over his allotted time.
"I had five seconds before you interrupted me," Obama said
to Lehrer with a smile.
Romney's chances of winning the White House were up by 8.4
percentage points after the debate, although he was still only
34.3 percent assured of victory in November, according to online
betting site Intrade.
The incumbent did put Romney on the defensive about his
proposals for overhauling the U.S. tax system with a 20 percent
across-the-board tax cut. Obama said it would cost the
government $5 trillion and that it would be impossible to make
up this amount by eliminating tax loopholes as the Republican
"The fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you
described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with
enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income
individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the
middle class. It's - it's math. It's arithmetic," Obama said.
Romney insisted his tax plan would not cost $5 trillion,
saying, "Virtually everything he said about my tax plan is
Obama also reminded Americans that Romney was proposing more
of the same kind of tax cuts that Obama's Republican
predecessor, former President George W. Bush, pushed through
Congress in 2001 and 2003. Most Americans are willing to concede
that Obama inherited an economic mess, but also believe it is
his responsibility to bring back the economy.
"We ended up moving from surpluses to deficits and it all
culminated with the worst recession since the Great Depression,"
In the face of attacks from Romney that the Obama healthcare
overhaul of 2010 will hurt small-business hiring, Obama
basically said his healthcare plan was modeled after the program
Romney put in place as governor of Massachusetts, and it "hasn't
destroyed jobs" there.
After arguing for months that the Wall Street regulation
legislation known as "Dodd-Frank" should be repealed, Romney was
forced to concede under pressure from Obama that he would keep
some financial regulations established under the law.
ROMNEY NEEDED VICTORY MORE
Romney was in need of a victory in the debate to help him
put his campaign back on a positive footing after a rocky few
He was damaged by a hidden-camera videotape in which he said
47 percent of voters were dependent on government and unlikely
to support him. That was among several stumbles that have
knocked Romney's campaign off message.
Obama, holding a slight lead in national polls and leading
Romney in some swing states where the election will be decided,
was looking in the debate to avoid harming his position as the
But he may have spent too much time trying to avoid making
mistakes and let Romney get the better of him.
The debate was the best opportunity to date to reach large
numbers of voters in an unfiltered way, with an estimated
television audience of 60 million possible.
Advisers to both Romney and Obama predictably said their man
emerged victorious. Obama adviser David Plouffe told reporters
in the spin room that Romney appeared "testy" at times.
As for Obama's lengthy comments, his campaign manager Jim
Messina said, "That's never going to be our strong suit."
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said if the debate had been a
prize fight, the referee would have called it for Romney an hour
The debate was the first of three such face-offs scheduled
in the next four weeks. Biden and Romney's running mate, U.S.
Representative Paul Ryan, will debate once, on Oct. 11.
- Politics & Government