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All eyes were on Denver Wednesday night for the first in a series of debates between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
PBS NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer moderated the event, an hour-long session that took place in University of Denver’s Magness Arena. With the topics discussed categorized as “domestic issues,” the economy was unsurprisingly the emphasis of the conversation.
After Obama and Romney greeted one another onstage, Lehrer explained that the format of the debate would be six 15-minute segments and opening and closing statements. However, they would disregard the time limits and structure for the entirety of the evening.
President Obama, who was awarded the first opening statement, began by addressing what he called “the most important point” of the evening–his wedding anniversary.
“20 years ago, I became the luckiest man on Earth because Michelle Obama chose to marry me,” Obama said.
But he quickly turned his focus to Romney and went on the offensive almost immediately.
“The question tonight is not where we’ve been, but where we’re going,” the president said. “Governor Romney has a perspective…that if we cut taxes skewed towards the wealthy and roll back regulations, that we’ll be better off.”
It was rhetoric that the Obama campaign has maintained throughout the election.
“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,” Obama said. “It’s math. It’s arithmetic.”
Romney’s tax plan calls for a whopping 20 percent marginal tax cut for all Americans, which he says the government can afford by cutting spending and lowering tax deductions and exemptions.
“My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class,” Romney said. “But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Americans are separated into brackets of income levels that are assigned tax rates accordingly – high-income earners pay a slightly higher percentage to the government. Romney’s tax plan would not reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people in relation to other tax levels because their rate would be lowered alongside every other bracket.
Lowering the individual tax rate in this manner would allow small businesses to hire more people, Romney said, and is a key reason he believes that the tax cut would jumpstart the economy.
“54 percent of America’s workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate, but at the individual tax rate,” he said. “If we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people.”
Obama lessened the tax load for mid-level income-earners and no other level when he first took office.
“Four years ago, when I stood on this stage, I said that I would cut taxes for middle-class families,” he said. “And that’s exactly what I did. We cut taxes for middle-class families by about $3,600.”
Despite the contention about taxes early on in the debate, Romney and Obama agreed with one another multiple times Wedesday night when it came to broad issues like emphasizing the importance of the middle class, championing small businesses and supporting Social Security and Medicaid.
When the conversation turned from the economy to health care, specifically the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Romney seized the opportunity to differentiate himself from the president.
“When the president ran for office, he said that by this year he would have brought down the cost of insurance for each family by $2,500 a family,” Romney said. “Instead, it’s gone up by that amount.”
“So [Obamacare is] expensive,” he said. “Expensive things hurt families…the best course for health care is to do what we did in my state, craft a plan at the state level that fits the needs of the state.”
But the president retaliated with a comment on how similar Romney’s health care plan as governor of Massachusetts was to his own.
“The irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because Governor Romney…set up what is essentially the identical model,” Obama said.
Both candidates shone in the closing minutes, with final statements on the role of government and their plans for the future.
“I believe that the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity,” Obama said. Taking a cue from Romney’s effective opening statement, the president finished with anecdotes, remembering “the woman I met in North Carolina” and “the auto workers that you meet in Toledo or Detroit” to illustrate once more some talking points on education, energy and jobs.
“All those things are designed to make sure that the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination, is channeled and they have an opportunity to succeed,” Obama said.
Romney maintained that, should he be elected, things will be different.
“I’m concerned about the direction America has been taking over the last four years,” Romney said. “There really are two very different paths that we began speaking about this evening… I will keep America strong, and get America’s middle-class working again.”
The scene in Denver
Pete’s University Park Café across from the DU campus is a small, well-off business with six locations in the Denver area. General Manager Dean Phillips was approached by multiple people throughout the day of the debate asking to put signs and posters on the café’s property.
“We can’t choose either side because we have to be totally neutral, obviously,” Phillips said. He turned the inquiries away. “It’s just a smart business strategy. You serve 1,000 people a day, 500 could be Romney supporters and 500 could be Obama supporters… I don’t want to turn somebody off.”
Despite a bustling day for university and media workers around the Denver campus, Phillips said that he would not need all of the additional supplies he had brought for Wednesday.
“Today has been kind of mellow. I think a lot of people were scared to even come down this way with all the traffic. It’s kind of been like a ghost town,” Phillips said. “Monday was the busiest of all the days, and it was mostly security and television crews and stuff like that.”
Campus was quiet as University of Denver classes were cancelled on the day of the event, though an estimated 2,000 students and alumni showed up for DebateFest, an outdoor event on campus.
Popular Denver band The Lumineers played at DebateFest before the debate was aired on a jumbo screen for attendees.
Greg Kwoka, a 23-year-old graduate student at University of Denver studying geography and the environment, was one of what most consider the target audience of the debate that night–an on-the-fence voter.
“I’m pretty undecided with both candidates,” he said. “I’m not really supporting either one, but I want to hear what they have to say about the issues.”
Pre-debate rallying on University Avenue had Romney and Obama supporters lining opposite sides of the street the candidates would be entering campus on. Lexi Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore at DU, joined in the rally because she is a Romney supporter concerned that there won’t be any jobs available when she graduates under Obama’s potential second term.
“I hope to have a good job market by the time I graduate because that’s kind of a big deal for me, to get a good job,” Smith said. “I haven’t been impressed with Obama the last four years. He promised hope and change, but I’ve only seen things get worse. So we’ll hopefully give someone else a chance in there and see if that makes things get better.”
Despite party affiliation, the debate was important for students on her campus, Smith said.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience and opportunity; you don’t get to have this happen on your campus every day,” she said.
The next debate will be between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky on Oct. 11th.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Editor Alison Noon at Alison.firstname.lastname@example.org and Breaking News Editor Annie Melton at Annie.email@example.com.