Most polls going into Wednesday night's debate showed Romney trailing the president. But with unemployment above 8 percent, the president is vulnerable on economic matters.
The debate, moderated by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, was divided into 15-minute segments.
Most of the debate focused on the economy, and health care received a lot of attention. The president defended "Obamacare," similar to "Romneycare," the very similar health plan Romney passed while governor of Massachusetts that Obama's plan was based in part on.
The debate began briskly, and both men frequently went over their alloted time.
Obama and Romney clashed over their fundamental difference on how to close the deficit gap in the U.S., with Obama stressing the need for revenue through individual and corporate taxes and Romney pressing for cuts to taxes and services. Banking reform and federal regulations were discussed. Obama brought up tax breaks for wealthy corporations in thriving industries like oil; Romney brought up Obama's heavy investment in developing "green" technologies.
The fight over Social Security and Medicare, both expected to play large during the debate, did not disappoint. Romney and Obama did agree on the need for efficiency in the programs, but disagreed on the respective directions. Romney stressed his preference for sending Medicare money to individual states. Obama pointed out that Medicare has lower administrative care costs than private insurers, and was not driven by a profit motive.
Romney talked about changing Medicare to implement higher benefits for lower-income individuals and lower benefits for higher-income individuals. Obama cited that the AARP found that the Romney plan would substantially weaken Medicare. Romney assured viewers that current and imminent retirees would not be affected. Obama said "If you're 54 or 55, you may want to pay attention."
The two men debated the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." Obama noted the plan was based on Romney's own Massachusetts plan when he was governor of that state; that the same advisers on that plan said it was the same. Romney countered he thought each state should craft its own insurance solutions, not be forced to adopt a federal plan.
Education, the role of government, and legislative paralysis were also covered. Obama said "budgets reflect choices" and said under Romney and Ryan, if their plan was extrapolated the education budget by 20 percent. Romney noted the Massachusetts education ranking of number one in the nation. He said he wanted to "grade" schools and wanted federal funds to "follow the child" and promoted school choice.
Overall, Obama chided Romney for lack of specifics in his proposed policies. Romney said Obama was too partisan and too reliant on the federal government in his policies.
An Eyewitness News focus group comprised of three Democrats, three Republicans and two undecided voters sat with reporter Elex Michaelson to watch the debate.
The undecided voters said they had not swung toward Romney, even though they felt he did better in the debate.
"The questions that Romney was asked, he did not give concise answers again. It's just like a slippery slope all the time," said Star Sylvester, one of the undecided voters.
The viewers who matter most live in the contested battleground states that will determine which candidate gets to 270 electoral votes on Nov. 6: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Both men are seasoned debaters: Obama has been here before, facing off with McCain in 2008. Romney hasn't gone one-on-one in a presidential debate, but he got plenty of practice thinking on his feet during the 19 multi-candidate debates during the Republican primaries.
Romney and Obama debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan have their lone debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.