Obama, Romney spar in first debate

DENVER -- President Obama and Mitt Romney are squaring off tonight in the first of three debates. Jim Lehrer of PBS is moderating the 90-minute event, which will be focused on the economy, jobs and the role of government.

We'll be live-blogging highlights from the University of Denver in this file. Full debate coverage, including an analysis and fact check, will be available on all USA TODAY platforms.

10:32 p.m. That's a wrap. The next debate is between Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan on Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

10:30 p.m. Romney's closing argument is a mix of what he'd do and what would happen under another Obama term. "There really are two different paths but they lead in very different directions. It's not just looking at the words,it's the actions." If Obama is re-elected, the middle class will continue to get squeezed, he says, and health care premiums will go up. If president re-elected, there will be a $716 billion cut to Medicare and cuts to the military.

10:28 p.m. Obama is making his closing argument. "The question now is how to build on our strengths," he says. "Four years ago, I said I am not a perfect man and I would not be a perfect president. ...I also said I would fight every single day. I've kept that promise and if you'll vote for me I'll fight again."

10:25 p.m. Obama jokes that Romney will have a busy first day, because the Republican also says he'll repeal the national health care law -- which won't be popular with Democrats. "We've seen progress even in a Republican-controlled House," Obama says. "Part of leadership and governing is saying what it is you are for but also saying no to some things.

10:24 p.m. What would you do to end partisan gridlock?

Romney says he had a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts and has experience working across the aisle. He brings up a weekly meeting with state legislators. "We have to work together," Romney says. "Republicans and Democrats both love America but we need leadership."

10:22 p.m. Romney is noting that Obama's investment in green jobs would have hired more teachers. "The right course for the federal government is not to be the economic player ... not to pick winners and losers," he says.

10:18 p.m. Obama about education: "This is where budgets matter," he says.

10:15 p.m. Romney says the key to great schools is great teachers, but every school district should make that decision on their own. The role of government, he says, is to uphold the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Romney says we must maintain our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance. He says right now he sees a "trickle down" approach from government "that's not working."

"It's time for a new path," Romney says.

Lehrer asks if the federal government has a role in education. Romney says he agrees with some of the programs put in place by Education Secretary Arnie Duncan. He talks about the need for school choice, so that parents can decide what schools their children go to.


Obama says the first role of the government is to keep people safe. He says as president he has tried to apply the principles of Abraham Lincoln. Brings up the "Race to the Top" education program to improve schools and at the same time he has tried to help in hiring more teachers. "It's the kind of investment the federal government ... can make a difference," he says.

10:11 p.m. Romney says: "What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation, state by state."

10:08 p.m. Obama says the board created by the new health care law would not make decisions about treatment. Obama says Romney's plan would duplicate what's already in the law.

10:06 p.m. Romney says he would cover pre-existing conditions and young people can stay on their family's plan. He says that he and Obama agree to get costs down. Romney comes back to the board that will make decisions about treatment. He says what's needed is performance-based incentives. "The right answer is not to have the federal government take over health care. The private market and individual responsibility always work best," he says.

10:05 p.m. Obama says Romney hasn't described what he wants to replace the national health care law with, except to say he wants to leave it to states.

10:01 p.m. Romney: "I like the way we did it in Massachusetts." He's emphasizing that Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass the state law. "You pushed through something that you and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was the best thing," Romney said.

10 p.m. "Gov. Romney did a good thing" in Massachusetts, Obama says. "It hasn't destroyed jobs."

9:58 p.m. Obama explains the rationale for the national health care law, including the need to expand access. "This is part of making sure middle class families" are taken care of, he says. Obama says the law "doesn't mean a government take over" and that there are no arbitrary lifetime limits on coverage. "If you don't have health insurance we're essentially setting up a group plan," Obama says.


Romney says "Obamacare" makes some businesses less likely to hire people. "It has killed jobs," Romney says. Now he brings up the Massachusetts health care plan, arguing that it was a state-based and state-centric plan. Obama has said that the Massachusetts law signed by Romney was a model for the national health care law.

9:54 p.m. Romney says he would not have designated five banks as "too big to fail" or enacted the Dodd-Frank law. Now we're talking about mortgages and the housing crisis. "Sometimes they didn't come out with a clear regulation," Romney says.

9:52 p.m Obama says the reason for the economic crisis was "reckless behavior across the board," from the big banks on Wall Street to the people who approved home loans. Obama says his administration enacted the "toughest reforms" on Wall Street.

9:50 p.m. Lehrer asks about regulation. Romney says regulation is essential so that you can have an economy work. "At the same time, regulation can become excessive ... and become out of date," he says. One example: The Dodd-Frank law that imposed new rules on Wall Street, Romney says. He would "repeal and replace" the law.

9:44 p.m. Obama says Romney's plan would be to turn Medicare into a voucher program. "If you're 54 or 55 you might want to listen," Obama says, as he starts to explain the proposal originally put forward by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan.

Obama notes Romney now wants to have traditional Medicare as an option, but there are ways for insurance companies to raise costs.

9:42 p.m. "Neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees for Social Security or Medicare," Romney says. Then he corrects himself, adding that Obama is cutting $716 billion from Medicare. "I can't understand how you can cut Medicare ... for current recipients. I want to take that $716 billion you cut and put it back in Medicare."


Obama says he "suspects" that he and Romney have a similar position on Social Security. He wants to talk about Medicare, "the big driver" of deficits. Obama brings up his beloved grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who received Social Security and Medicare in the later years of her life. "These are folks who have worked hard like my grandmother," he says. "My approach is how to strengthen the system in the long run.

9:38 p.m. Romney brings up his 25-years in business. "The idea that you get a break for shipping jobs overseas" isn't right, Romney says.

9:34 p.m. Obama says a "balanced" approach to taxes is the way to go. Now he's talking about corporate taxes, such as subsidies to oil companies and for corporate jets. "Does anyone believe that Exxon-Mobil needs more money?" Now he slams Romney for not identifying what loopholes he wants to close.

9:31 p.m. Romney: "You've been president for four years ... CBO says we'll still have deficits. I love this idea of $4 trillion in cuts, but we still show trillion-dollar deficits every year. It doesn't get the job done."

He says when the economy is in recession you shouldn't raise taxes on anyone. "You never balance the budget by raising taxes," Romney says, arguing that he doesn't want to end up like Spain.

9:28 p.m. Obama says he made sure to cut out government programs that weren't working and went after fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. He talks about his $4 trillion deficit reduction plan.


Romney says it's not "moral" to add to the deficit. "Obamacare ... I want to get rid of it. I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. Sorry, Jim, I like you. I like Big Bird, too," he says. Also on his list: Making the government more efficient. Romney says Obama vowed to cut the deficit in half, but he doubled it.

9:25 p.m. "My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that adds to the deficit," Romney says.

9:22 p.m. We long ago exceeded the first 15-minute period. But we're still talking jobs and taxes. Obama says the "same sales pitch" that Romney is talking about was tried before and led to a financial crisis. He says Clinton's way was better and "we went from deficit to surplus."

9:20 p.m. Obama says by Romney's definition Donald Trump is a small business-man. "And I know Donald Trump doesn't think he's small anything," Obama says.

9:18 p.m. Obama is saying that Romney is now saying "no, never mind" about his tax plan. "It's math, it's arithmetic," Obama says, adding that he shares with Romney a desire to help small businesses. And now the first mention of Bill Clinton: Obama says he wants to go back to the rates that Clinton had.

9:17 p.m. Romney says he wants to lower rates because of the impact on small businesses. "If we lower that rate they will be able to hire more people," he says. "To me this is about jobs."

9:16 p.m. "Virtually everything he said about my tax plan is inaccurate," Romney says. "I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit."

9:14 p.m. The topic is taxes and whose plan would help the middle class. Obama says Romney's plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut with more spending for defense, and he'll pay for it by closing loopholes and reducing deductions. "You don't come close to paying for $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in defense spending," Obama says. The president charges that the middle class would pay more. "Top down economics ... is not a recipe for economic growth," he says.

9:12 p.m. Romney says education is key to future of economy, but says we've got too many federal training programs. "Go to the workers so they can create their own pathways," he says. Romney says he would lower tax rates, credits and deductions. He hits Obama on energy policy, vowing to make sure he would help the coal industry and do more drilling.

9:11 p.m. Romney says he doesn't have a $5 trillion tax cut. "My view is we ought to provide tax relief for the middle class," he says. Romney argues that the middle class has been "buried" under Obama. Electric rates up, health care rates are up, he says. "Middle income families are being crushed," Romney says.

9:07 p.m. Romney congratulates the Obamas on their annniversary, joking about how he was sure this was the "most romantic" place the president could think of being.

9:06 p.m. "America does best when the middle class does best," Obama says.


9:04 p.m. Obama opens by wishing his "sweetie" a happy 20th anniversary. "A year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people," he says to Michelle.

9:03 p.m. Romney and Obama take the stage. Red tie for Romney and a blue tie for Obama. First question: What are the major differences between you on economy and the jobs?

9 p.m. Lehrer is welcoming the TV audience to the debate. The format: six segments of 15 minutes each, including open discussion between the candidates.

8:51 p.m. Lehrer jokes with the crowd and charges the candidates' wives to "take names" of people who start cheering (or booing) and disrupt the debate decorum. He says "sit on it" if you hear something you like -- or don't like. Only time applause is acceptable: When Obama and Romney are introduced and at the end when he says "Good night."

8:48 p.m. First lady Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are introduced to the audience. They walk across the room to greet each other, and share a hug. Lehrer is introduced -- it's the 12th time the Texan is taking part in a presidential debate.

8:45 p.m. A reminder from the Romney camp: They've got a new microsite -- debates.mittromney.com -- which will be their outlet for "rapid response" and fact-checking of Obama's comments.

8:43 p.m. Just landed in my inbox: A fundraising pitch from Obama with "before I go on stage." He's asking for a campaign donation of $5 or more "to help finish this campaign strong."

8:39 p.m. Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, the co-chairmen of the Commission on Presidential Debates, are talking to the audience inside the Magness Arena. Fahrenkopf urges no cheering from the crowd. Obama gets the first question, while Romney will get the last word.


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