With just more than a month to go before voters head to the polls, President Barack Obama sparred with Republican challenger Mitt Romney Wednesday night over the economy, taxes and health care in the first of three scheduled debates.
Both men made frequent references to the weak economy and high national unemployment, by far the dominant issue in the race for the White House. Public opinion polls show Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally, and Romney was particularly aggressive, like a man looking to shake up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.
Lori Shultz, vice-chairwoman of the McPherson County Republicans, said the debate did a good job of showing a remarkable contrast between the two competitors.
“Anyone who didn’t walk away from this debate knowing the differences between the two candidates wasn’t listening closely,” Shultz said.
Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, repeal Obama's health-care plan, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits — but he provided no specifics despite Obama's prodding.
"At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good? Because middle class families benefit too much? No," Obama said.
For Marla Patrick, former assistant chairwoman of the McPherson County Democrats, this was what struck her most about Romney’s performance during the debate.
“He’s a walking talking point with absolutely no substance behind it,” Patrick said. “A normal, average person is going to say ‘It’s great that you have this plan, but you aren’t giving any specifics.’”
Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and didn't hesitate to interrupt the president or moderator Jim Lehrer. Patrick felt this was to the president’s detriment.
“It looked like Obama tried to stay above it all,” she said. “He went with the ‘you’re so ridiculous, I’m not going to go there’ approach. I think it will be seen as weak and not noble.”
Patrick also was critical of Lehrer’s performance.
“I was not impressed with the way this was handled,” Patrick said. “I don’t think Lehrer did his job of keeping control as moderator.”
Not surprisingly, the two men disagreed over Medicare, a flash point since Romney placed Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket. Romney also made a detailed case for repealing Obamacare, the name attached to the health-care plan that Obama pushed through Congress in 2010.
Page 2 of 2 - “It has killed jobs,” he said, and argued that the best approach is to “do what we did in my state.”
The president said the changes were part of a plan to lengthen the program's life, and he added that AARP, the seniors lobby, supports it.
Shultz thought the discourse over Obamacare was where Romney was the strongest throughout the night.
“He showed there is a big difference between his health-care plan and Obama’s health-care plan,” Shultz said. “It’s going to come down to whether voters like Obamacare or not.”
Shultz added she was surprised the president didn’t shy away from the discussion about his touted health-care plan.
“That surprised me a lot because it is controversial,” she said. “I know the local hospital doesn’t like Obamacare. The local health-care providers don’t like Obamacare.”
When it came to missed opportunities during the debate, Patrick was surprised Obama opted not to attack some of the former Massachusetts governor’s perceived gaffes.
“Never once was the 47 percent brought up,” Patrick said. “Never once was Bain International brought up. That is my biggest disappointment. He did not hit Romney where he could on a lot of things.”
Shultz wanted more discussion on family value issues, but thought both men did a commendable job during the debate.
“They were very up front and honest of their plans and gave American voters a clear idea of who they are and what they stand for,” Shultz said.
The two presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this story. David Espo reported from Washington.