The first televised debate in the 2012 United States presidential election campaign was a low-key, at times pedantic, exchange, with both candidates, President Barack Obama and challenger Governor Mitt Romney, trading charges on questions of economic policy. The surprise element of the debate was Mr. Romney’s sharp tenor, which handed him the dominant edge at several points in the discussion. Contrarily, Mr. Obama appeared cautious and reactive, even opening the debate on a soft note by wishing his wife a happy anniversary. Mr. Romney though spared no effort to take aim at Mr. Obama’s record in office, with the criticism that unemployment has been at 8 per cent or above for 43 successive months, and the budget deficit appears as uncontrollable as it was when the President took office. He also targeted potential Republican voters with repeated claims about the likely costs of Mr. Obama’s flagship Affordable Health Care Act. The Governor then contrasted the partisanship which had ensured the Act’s passage through Congress with the consensus he had achieved to get a similar bill passed in his own State, Massachusetts.

The President countered with attacks on Mr. Romney’s avoidance of specifics, in particular asking how he expected to reduce the budget deficit while at the same time expanding military spending and cutting taxes on corporates and the very rich. Mr. Obama landed some telling blows, not least when his adversary said nobody over 60 needed to think about health insurance and he replied, looking directly at the camera, that everyone now aged 54 or 55 would need to think about it. Both candidates, however, stayed off ideological issues, with the challenger probably startling his own supporters by favouring regulation of business and claiming that he would not cut public education funding. Mr. Romney also raised eyebrows when, for the first time on such a high-profile platform, he spoke strongly in favour of not raising tax on the middle class and not reducing taxes for the rich. While he has sometimes struggled to hold the support of hardcore Republicans, the aim of the party faithful to oust the incumbent may guarantee him a basic level of backing. Mr. Obama however needs to keep floating voters interested, particularly as the economy is still in trouble. Yet curiously, the President missed the chance to remind Mr. Romney of his recent gaffe in which he had written off 47 per cent of Americans for allegedly paying no tax. The post-event consensus is that he lost this opening debate on points. The next two debates will focus more on serious questions of U.S. foreign policy. In particular Washington’s disastrous policies in West Asia and Afghanistan may be examined, forays that neither Mr. Obama nor his challenger seems to know how to handle.

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