DENVER (Reuters) - Mitt Romney battled back in his uphill drive to oust President Barack Obama on Wednesday with an aggressive debate performance that put his campaign on a more positive footing after weeks of stumbles and knocked Obama off-stride.
In the first of three presidential debates this month, Romney went beyond expectations as the two candidates stood side-by-side for the first time after months of campaigning against each other from long distance.
Looking to claw his way back into a race that has seen Obama hold an edge among voters, Romney was on the offensive throughout the 90-minute encounter with Obama. While the president landed some punches on Romney's tax plan, he did not appear as prepared as his rival and missed several opportunities to attack.
With under five weeks to go until the November 6 election, it was uncertain whether Romney had managed to change the trajectory of a race that has favored Obama. It is difficult to dislodge an incumbent from the White House. In recent weeks, Romney has lurched from stumble to stumble and been unable to project a consistent message.
"How does it translate into the horse race? That's unclear," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Romney should have some momentum. The question is whether he can maintain it."
But there was no question that Romney's campaign felt it was now in a better position. In the "spin room" afterward, Romney advisers hung around for 90 minutes talking to reporters, long after the Obama side had decamped.
A CNN/ORC snap poll said 67 percent of registered voters surveyed thought Romney won the debate at the University of Denver, compared with 25 percent for Obama.
Romney and Obama clashed repeatedly over taxes, healthcare and the role of government in ways that reflected the deep ideological divide in Washington and that has contributed to political gridlock.
Romney zeroed in on weak economic growth and 8.1 percent unemployment that have left Obama vulnerable in his effort to win a second four-year term. Government has taken on too big a role under Obama, dampening job creation, Romney argued.
"What we're seeing right now, in my view, (is) a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it's not working. And the proof of that is 23 million people out of work," Romney said.
Fact checkers took issue with some of assertions by the former Massachusetts governor, like the number of people unemployed, but he appeared more poised and better prepared than his opponent.
Obama argued that under his leadership, the economy had been brought back from the brink, with 5 million jobs created in the private sector, a resurgent auto industry and housing beginning to rise.
"You know, four years ago, we were going through a major crisis. And yet my faith and confidence in the American future is undiminished," Obama said.
(Factbox: Quotes from first U.S. presidential debate reut.rs/QIGa8M)
(Video: Romney, Obama spar over taxes in presidential debate reut.rs/VjJeLk)
(Fact or fiction in the U.S. presidential debate? reut.rs/QIQj5i)
NO MENTION OF THE '47 PERCENT'
Mysteriously, Obama failed to mention issues his campaign has used in attack ads to damage Romney such as the Republican's now infamous "47 percent" video, job cuts he made while at Bain Capital private equity firm, his tax returns and previous hard line on immigration.
The debate saw no haymaker punches thrown and not much in the way of memorable one-line zingers. Instead, it was a war of attrition as each man used facts and figures to make his points and stress the differences between them.
Romney, however, did himself some favors with crisper answers than Obama, who sounded professorial and a bit long-winded despite his staff's best efforts to get him to give snappier comments.
Quite often Obama looked downward at his notes as Romney pounced on the president's record. At one point, the Democrat quibbled with debate moderator Jim Lehrer who tried to cut him off for going over his allotted time.
"I had five seconds before you interrupted me," Obama said to Lehrer with a smile.
Romney's chances of winning the White House were up by 8.4 percentage points after the debate, although he was still only 34.3 percent assured of victory in November, according to online betting site Intrade.
The incumbent did put Romney on the defensive about his proposals for overhauling the U.S. tax system with a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut. Obama said it would cost the government $5 trillion and that it would be impossible to make up this amount by eliminating tax loopholes as the Republican talks about.
"The fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It's - it's math. It's arithmetic," Obama said.
Romney insisted his tax plan would not cost $5 trillion, saying, "Virtually everything he said about my tax plan is inaccurate."
Obama also reminded Americans that Romney was proposing more of the same kind of tax cuts that Obama's Republican predecessor, former President George W. Bush, pushed through Congress in 2001 and 2003. Most Americans are willing to concede that Obama inherited an economic mess, but also believe it is his responsibility to bring back the economy.
"We ended up moving from surpluses to deficits and it all culminated with the worst recession since the Great Depression," said Obama.
In the face of attacks from Romney that the Obama healthcare overhaul of 2010 will hurt small-business hiring, Obama basically said his healthcare plan was modeled after the program Romney put in place as governor of Massachusetts, and it "hasn't destroyed jobs" there.
After arguing for months that the Wall Street regulation legislation known as "Dodd-Frank" should be repealed, Romney was forced to concede under pressure from Obama that he would keep some financial regulations established under the law.
(Full coverage on the U.S. presidential election: bit.ly/P9Rqfb)
ROMNEY NEEDED VICTORY MORE
Romney was in need of a victory in the debate to help him put his campaign back on a positive footing after a rocky few weeks.
He was damaged by a hidden-camera videotape in which he said 47 percent of voters were dependent on government and unlikely to support him. That was among several stumbles that have knocked Romney's campaign off message.
Obama, holding a slight lead in national polls and leading Romney in some swing states where the election will be decided, was looking in the debate to avoid harming his position as the apparent front-runner.
But he may have spent too much time trying to avoid making mistakes and let Romney get the better of him.
The debate was the best opportunity to date to reach large numbers of voters in an unfiltered way, with an estimated television audience of 60 million possible.
Advisers to both Romney and Obama predictably said their man emerged victorious. Obama adviser David Plouffe told reporters in the spin room that Romney appeared "testy" at times.
As for Obama's lengthy comments, his campaign manager Jim Messina said, "That's never going to be our strong suit."
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said if the debate had been a prize fight, the referee would have called it for Romney an hour in.
The debate was the first of three such face-offs scheduled in the next four weeks. Biden and Romney's running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, will debate once, on October 11.
(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman and Jeff Mason in Denver and Alina Selyukh in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
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