Romney goes on offensive during first presidential debate
DENVER — Mitt Romney's task Wednesday was to do one thing: convince voters he's a change they can believe in.
With time running out and the polls against him, Romney wanted to do more than share the stage with the president, he wanted to own it.
His goal was to at least showcase a new, improved Romney for a vast audience he hopes will believe he would actually fix the economy and make their lives better.
That's because a race that was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama has become in its final weeks a referendum on Romney.
In large part, Romney succeeded in giving voters a reason to reassess his candidacy with a brisk, detailed performance that clearly animated his aides — and seemed to put Obama's surrogates on the defensive — in the spin-session with media in the minutes after the debate.
Repeatedly in Wednesday night's presidential debate, the Republican challenger sought to cast himself as the antidote to a spendthrift, tax-raising president who he said has failed the country.
"Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They've just been crushed," Romney declared.
In a flurry of facts, figures and multipoint plans, Romney seemed bent on burying Obama with ideas he said would help fix the nation's fiscal woes.
"My plan has five basic parts," he said, ticking off energy independence, expanded trade, better schools, balancing the budget and championing small business.
Obama warned that Romney's approach would favor the right and mirror the Bush administration in which "we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression."
Obama said his Republican opponent was advocating "trickle-down economics." Romney was ready with a pre-arranged retort, saying the president favored "trickle-down government."
For Obama, with the brisk wind of the polls at his back, Wednesday's first of three presidential debates was about maintaining the trajectory of the race. He's ahead; keep it that way. Look presidential, not persnickety.
Romney's job was harder. Stiff and patrician by nature, Romney has looked for ways to be more likable without looking false and to exude success without seeming out of touch. With all his wealth — and the uncomfortable fallout from his comments that 47 percent of Americans are "victims" too dependent on government — Romney has found it difficult to convince middle-class voters that he feels their pain.
Debates are always a battle between style and substance. And while substance counts, Romney's goal in the campaign's final weeks has become a stylistic one. He must convince undecided voters who represent a sliver of the electorate that Obama hasn't repaired the economy, but he will.
"Over the last four years, small-business people have decided that America may not be the place to open a new business, because new business startups are down to a 30-year low. I know what it takes to get small business growing again, to hire people," Romney said.
Romney's effort to convince voters that Obama is to blame for the poor economy and that things are getting worse has run headlong into the president's argument that the country is headed in the right direction and that his GOP challenger would repeat the same flawed fiscal ideas that got the country into the mess in the first place.
Recent polls suggest that Americans think the economy is recovering, although at a painfully slow pace.