Mitt Romney finally found his voice Wednesday night.

After many months of awkward moments and shifting campaign messages, he forcefully and confidently stood alongside President Barack Obama and offered an alternative economic vision to what he called Obama’s “trickle-down government approach.”

The two contenders seemed to swap roles Wednesday. Obama was the one who struggled for his footing, scowling on the split screen of millions of television viewers across the nation and often looking like a man who wished he was elsewhere.

Romney came to the debate at the University of Denver with a heavy set of goals, the chief of which was to regain ground on the economy. That issue is the uppermost of voter concerns and the one that he believes is his greatest advantage against the incumbent.

He pressed his indictment of Obama’s stewardship of a disappointingly weak recovery, and 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 politically damaging phrase that Vice President Joe Biden had used the day before in describing the situation 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.

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.

“The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth. And you could never quite get the job done,” he said. “I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.”

The central premise of the Republican nominee’s campaign has been that voters, disillusioned with Obama’s performance in reviving economic growth, would turn to Romney, who touts the expertise and experience he gained in the corporate world.

But with less than five weeks to go before Election Day, Romney has yet to make a convincing case for himself on that score — and now is running about even with Obama on which candidate would better handle the economy.

Where Romney held a seven-point edge over the president on that question among registered voters in an August Washington Post-ABC News poll, the latest survey shows them tied, with 47 percent saying Romney would do a better job on the economy and the same proportion opting for Obama.


Meanwhile, the president continues to hold a double-digit advantage when voters are asked which of the two candidates better understands the economic problems people in this country are having. In the most recent poll, 52 percent said it was Obama; 39 percent named Romney.

The first debate, which history would suggest will draw the biggest audience, amounted to Romney’s best opportunity to change a political dynamic that has been moving against him.

As a result, he was getting an avalanche of advice — some of it conflicting — from the conservative commentators and from his allies on the sidelines: Be more aggressive, be more personable, attack Obama’s record, offer more details of his own plan for the future, stay out of the weeds and stick to big themes.

For Obama, who went into the debates with a slight lead in nearly every poll, the biggest challenge was to avoid a stumble. In past debates, his worst flaws had been ones of style, in which he came off as arrogant, aloof, or long-winded and professorial.

Whether the debate did much to win over undecided voters or change anyone’s mind is something that is not likely to become clear for at least a few days.

In this deeply polarized country, the number of people who are truly wavering in their choice is relatively small.


And those who are probably were not among the tens of millions who tuned into the debate, said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer.

By and large, “they are undecided because those people are not checked in to the election,” Podhorzer said. “They’re paying attention to the coverage of the debate and they’re paying attention to what their friends are saying.”

And in an era where so much of the national dialogue takes place on social media, “inevitably some moments will live on in YouTube,” he added.


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