WASHINGTON // Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, pressed his case for president with a strong performance in the first American presidential debate Wednesday night, against an at times unusually hesitant Barack Obama, the incumbent Democrat president.
If there was a sense leading up to this debate that the election was gradually slipping away from Mr Romney, he showed last night he is capable of taking the race right down to the wire.
The debate, at the University of Denver in Colorado, focused exclusively on domestic policy and the two clashed over their respective tax plans, how tobalance the budget, the role of government and healthcare.
The hour-and-a-half long debate was serious in tone. Neither candidate reached for easy one-liners. It was not short on attacks, however.
Mr Romney said his tax plan would lower taxes on everyone and do away with taxloopholes, but rejected repeated charges by Mr Obama that his proposal would add to America's budget deficit. Instead, he argued, it was Mr Obama's "trickle-down government" approach that had hurt America's economy.
"The president has a view very similar to the one he had when he ran for office four years ago, that spending more, taxing more,regulating more, if you will, trickle-down government would work. That's not the right answer for America."
Mr Obama countered that "common sense and our history", along with maths, dictated that Mr Romney's plan to lower taxes would increase the deficit without fail. Mr Romney's plan, he said, was simply a regurgitation of Republican policies in 2001 and 2003 under former president George W Bush.
"We ended up moving from surpluses to deficits and it all culminated with the worst recession since the Great Depression," said Mr Obama.
Mr Obama also charged that Mr Romney was short on detail whether on his tax plan, on what government programs would be ended to cut government expenditure or on his proposed alternative to Mr Obama's Affordable Care Act healthcare reform.
But Mr Romney lacked no detail in going after Mr Obama's record. Repeatedly invoking "23 million" unemployed, "one in six" in poverty, "47 million" relying on food stamps and "[US$]90 billion" in tax breaks for the clean energy sector, Mr Romney questioned the US president's priorities
"Why would he spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs," Mr Romney asked.
Mr Romney said he would repeal Mr Obama's health reforms, but did not say with what he would replace a plan largely modelled on one he instituted in Massachusetts as governor. Mr Obama countered that repealing the health care plan would hurt the most vulnerable and undermine efforts to make "sure that middle class families are secure".
Throughout the debate, Mr Romney seemed better prepared, offering bullet-point answers to some questions, including on how he saw the role of government, a three-point answer that started with protecting the American constitution.
Mr Obama offered only that government could help "create the ladders of opportunity", though he was on firmer ground on education where, he said, "budgets reflects choices" and Mr Romney's budget plan would hurt education by slashing spending.
But Mr Obama's closing statement seemed lacklustre, ending only with a promise that if re-elected, he would fight "every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class and all those striving to get into the middle class".
Mr Romney, by contrast, said the election was about two fundamentally different paths: one would lead to chronic unemployment and dramatic defence cuts. The other was his plan.
"I will keep America strong and get America's middle class working again."
Coming into the first debate, Mr Obama enjoyed a small but significant lead in opinion polls across the country, including in key swing states. But a snap CNN poll of registered voters taken immediately after Wednesday night's debate will now have provided Mr Obama and his campaign staff plenty of food for thought: 67 percent felt Mr Romney won the first debate. Only 25 percent went for Mr Obama.