The two contenders seemed to swap roles Wednesday. Obama was the one who struggled for his footing, scowling on the split screens of millions of television viewers across the nation and often looking like a man who wished he were elsewhere.
Romney came to the debate at the University of Denver with a heavy set of goals, chief of which was to regain ground on the economy. That issue is uppermost among voter concerns and the one that Romney believes provides his greatest advantage.
Romney pressed his case against Obama’s stewardship of a disappointingly weak recovery. He sought to sharpen his own proposals and to soften the perception among voters that he favors the interests of the wealthy over those who are struggling.
“The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans. Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried,” Romney said, echoing a damaging phrase that Vice President Biden used the day before to describe the status of average Americans over the past four years.
Obama, meanwhile, did not make many of the arguments that he and his campaign have used most effectively against Romney. He did not recount the former governor’s career in private equity, during which Romney laid off workers, or the secretly taped video in which the Republican nominee told wealthy donors that the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes are dependent on government and see themselves as victims.
The president also left many of Romney’s claims unchallenged. Romney asserted eight times that Obama plans to cut $716 billion from Medicare without noting that the Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), shepherded a budget through the House that would do the same thing.
In talking about the economy, which was the primary focus of the debate, Romney delivered none of the “zingers” that his team had boasted they were preparing. Each candidate instead dug into the details of his proposals and sharply criticized his opponent’s.
And in some areas, they ceded ground to the other, primarily to stress their differences.
Obama said he agreed with Romney that “our corporate tax rate is too high, so I want to lower it, particularly for manufacturing, taking it down to 25 percent. But I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas. I want to provide tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States.”
And Romney insisted that he does not want to reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthy.
“High-income people are doing just fine in this economy,” he said. “They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.”
Romney also tried to draw a clearer link between his tax proposal, which heavily benefits the wealthy, and the economic benefit he insists it would provide for everyone else.