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Richard Wolf
USA TODAY

DENVER -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked President Obama on jobs, health care and the federal deficit Wednesday night in the first of three debates that could help decide who wins the White House.

Trailing in national polls and in key swing states, Romney emerged the aggressor in the high-stakes debate, charging that Obama's "trickle-down government" is placing a burden on individuals and small businesses.

"Middle-income families are being crushed," Romney said, seeking to reverse the central tenet of Obama's campaign -- that he is the candidate of the middle class and Romney the defender of the wealthy.

The two men began and ended with handshakes and smiles, but spent 90 minutes in between picking apart each other's records and proposals. At times, they accused each other of distorting the truth.

The president, ahead in the polls, also sought to take the fight to Romney by saying he would cut taxes by $5 trillion over 10 years. Obama said that requires "dumping those costs on middle-class Americans."

Romney denied his plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, contending he would not allow it to boost the deficit or benefit the wealthy. "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate," Romney said.

The verbal jousting was just as intense on other topics. Romney ridiculed the president for tackling health care in 2009 rather than focusing on jobs, and for cutting $716billion from Medicare in a health overhaul he labeled "Obamacare." Obama, saying he had "become fond of this term," said Romney would put seniors at risk by turning Medicare into a voucher program.

Throughout the debate, Romney was more at ease, recalling people he met on the campaign trail. Obama, often more professorial, ridiculed Romney's proposals as unrealistic or accused him of backpedaling.

"For 18 months, he's been running on his tax plan," Obama said. Now, "he's saying that his big, bold idea is 'never mind.'"

The 90-minute faceoff represented just the fourth time Obama and Romney had met. Most of their interaction has occurred in dueling video images, thanks to scores of negative ads flooding the airwaves in swing states from New Hampshire to Nevada.
Up to 60 million people were expected to view the skirmish, moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS' NewsHour. Social media sites such as Twitter gave viewers an instant opportunity to declare winners and losers, and reported historically high traffic Wednesday night.

Neither side is taking a break following the first debate. Obama planned rallies in Denver and Madison, Wis., today, while Romney and Ryan were to be in tiny Fishersville, Va., population 7,462. Obama and Romney will meet twice more this month; Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin will meet in the lone vice presidential debate next week.

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