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GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney tonight charged that President Barack Obama’s jobs plan is a failure, with millions out of work and looking for help.

“My plan is to put people back to work in America,” Romney said tonight at the first of three presidential debates scheduled for the 2012 presidential election season.

“Look at the history of the past four years. We have 23 million people unemployed. Keeping with the status quo is not going to work for the American people.”

Obama returned to his oft-repeated theme of blaming George W. Bush, asserting the taxation approach Romney was proposing was nothing more than a return to the “trickle-down” economy of the Republican plan.

Obama began the debate by reciting familiar campaign themes, suggesting once again that his administration inherited from Bush one of the worst economies in the history of the United States.

But Romney struck a theme of energy independence and advancing small business as keys to getting the U.S. economy growing again. He accused Obama of proposing “trickle-down government,” represented by more government regulation and more taxation.

Romney disputed Obama’s assertion he was locked into a tax cut, charging that under the Obama administration the middle class has been pressed by reduced income, diminished job opportunities and increased food and energy costs.

From the first moments of the debate, Romney looked Obama directly in the eye, took exception to president’s assertions about Romney’s policies, and gave more precise answers.

Obama pressed that Romney’s economic plan called for $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in military budget increases, a program Obama asserted would demand tax increases on middle-income earners.

“Look, I’ve got five boys and I’m used to somebody saying something that’s not true and hoping that by repeating it I’m going to believe it,” Romney countered, asserting that everything Obama said about his tax program was inaccurate.

Obama insisted Romney’s tax-reduction plan of necessity would either increase the deficit or demand tax increases for the middle class, charging that under Romney’s definition Donald Trump would be a small business.

Objecting to Jim Lehrer’s interruption that the first segment was exceeding the 15-minute limit, Romney charged that Obama would increase taxes on small businesses at the cost of 700,000 jobs.

As the discussion advanced to the nation’s deficit, Obama reiterated his statement that he inherited a massive deficit, and appeared on the defensive.

“You have been president for four years, you said you would cut the deficit in half and you have run $1 trillion in deficits each of the four years,” Romney attacked. “That does not get the job done.”

Romney pointed out that when the economy was growing as slowly as it is now, more slowly than when Obama took office, this is no time to increase taxes.

“You never balance the budget by increasing taxes,” Romney insisted. “I don’t want to go down the path of Spain.”

“Does Exxon Mobil need more money when they are making money every time you go to the pump?” Obama argued. “We have to eliminate tax deductions for moving jobs overseas. A balanced approach to increasing taxes will help people go to college.”

Forty minutes into the debate, Romney challenged that Obama appeared to begin skipping around topics, ranging from Medicaid, to college education, to the taxation of oil companies.

“You put $90 billion of tax breaks into losers like Solyndra, this is not the type of tax policy you implement to make the United States energy secure,” Romney countered.

“I would like to tell the states they will get the Medicare dollars they got last year to manage the state poor as the states see fit,” Romney argued, asserting the states are the laboratory of government.

Lehrer asked Obama if his position on Social Security was different from Romney’s.

Obama asserted his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, was independent in retirement only because of Social Security.

“There are millions of people out there depending upon Social Security,” Obama noted. “We can save millions by not overpaying insurance companies and health care providers. The way to deal with Medicare is to lower medical costs. With Social Security you do not need a major structural change.”

In response, Romney reassured the audience neither he nor Obama was proposing any changes for those 60 years or older, except he asserted Obama was cutting $716 billion from health care providers in Medicare to pay for Obamacare – at the cost of reducing the rates paid to providers, even though both hospitals and doctors say that under these cuts they will quit taking Medicare patients.

Obama countered by saying that for Romney’s plan to work those under 60 would be required to go to a voucher system.

“I don’t think vouchers are the way to go,” Obama argued, asserting that AARP agreed with him. “If you repeal Obamacare seniors today will have to pay more and the only beneficiary will be insurance companies when they are not making seniors any more healthy.”

Romney said he does not support taking $716 billion from Medicare and he argued that in the future those currently under 60 could either choose to go to a voucher system or stay with Medicare as it currently is.

Returning to the question of the deficit, Obama challenged broadly that greed and reckless profit-taking on Wall Street caused the economic downturn the nation continues to experience.

“Does anyone out there think we should repeal Dodd-Frank because there was too much regulation on Wall Street?” Obama asked.

“We have to have regulations,” Romney countered, “but Dodd-Frank provides for banks that are too big to fail. Two years into Dodd-Frank, we still don’t know what a qualified mortgage is.”

Up next was health care, and Romney began the segment by making it clear he would repeal Obamacare and implement health care reform on the state level, citing the example of how he instituted health care when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Obama said under Obamacare, each American could keep his or her own doctor and insurance plan, despite increasing evidence to the contrary already available in the health care market after Obamacare was implemented.

Concluding his opening to the segment, Obama tried to tag Romney with having instituted the predecessor to Obamacare in Massachusetts.

“I like what we did in Massachusetts, we had a bipartisan coalition, while you and Nancy Pelosi pushed through Congress what you thought was the best answer, even after Massachusetts elected a Republican senator to block you,” Romney charged, indicating CBO statistics that 20 million Americans will lose their current insurance coverage next year. “The American people do not want Obamacare. Something this big has to be done on a bipartisan basis, with a president capable of reaching across the aisle to get it done.”

Obama retorted that Obamacare was no different than the plan Romney instituted in Massachusetts.

“There are two ways to handle health care in the United States,” Obama asserted, in an answer that talked about a board constituted only to determine best practices, not to apportion or ration health care to Americans needing medical treatment. “We can leave people to fend for themselves or we can reduce the cost of health care in America.”

“The government is not able to bring down costs in anything,” Romney said, arguing that Obama’s example of the Cleveland Clinic proved his point that health costs are contained not by a board of 15 people dictating the type of health care people need, but by the free enterprise system.

“The federal government mandating to people and doctors what type of health care they can get is not the way to go,” Romney concluded.

Obama conceded that Romney’s plan in Massachusetts differed from Obamacare in that Romney’s plan involved a large increase in the private health insurance system.

Obama said Romney was not specific on exactly how he was going to replace Obamacare, just as Romney was not specific on how he would replace Dodd-Frank.

“My experience as a governor is that if I lay down a plan that says ‘My way or the highway,’ we don’t get a lot done,” Romney concluded. “I want to work together the way Reagan worked with Tip O’Neill. There are alternatives but my plan has objectives to reduce regulations and stimulate growth, state by state.”

Romney said “ignoring the 10th Amendment is not the way to have a vibrant economy.”

Romney said the key to education is great teachers, and he raised a reference to the U.S. Constitution regarding citizen rights.

“I interpret our founding documents as providing a responsibility for religious freedom – to pursue happiness by taking care of the less fortunate – but massive government involvement limits freedom – the path we are taking is not working with 23 million Americans unemployed and 50 million on food stamps.”

Obama said the responsibility of the federal government was important in improving the educational system in America.

“Budgets reflect choices. If we cut taxes to benefit people like Gov. Romney and me, it makes a difference,” Obama. He again demanded specifics of the GOP plans.

“When it comes to making college affordable, whether it be two years or four years, we cut out the middleman and eliminated banks from making a profit in student loans. Gov. Romney believes in education but he tells kids to borrow from their parents to go to college.”

Romney responded, “Mr. President, you are entitled to your own airplane and your own house – but not to your own facts.”

Romney said Obama put $90 billion into green jobs, but half of the recipients went bankrupt and others were owned by contributors to your campaign, and questioned the number of teachers that would have hired.

Romney proposed grading schools to know which were succeeding and which were failing.

“Massachusetts schools are ranked No. 1 in education because I care for education for all our children,” Romney said.

Lehrer lost an entire segment because he did not control the debate.

He asked what the candidates would do about political gridlock

Romney said as president he would sit down the day after he got elected with congressional leaders both Republican and Democrat to find common ground.

“This deficit could crush the future generations. Republicans and Democrats both love America, but we need leadership in Washington that will bring people together.”

Obama quipped that Romney will have a busy first day because he was also going to repeal Obamacare – an idea Obama said would not be popular with Democrats when Romney is sitting down with them.

Obama said his administration saw progress even with a Republican House.

“Have we had some fights? Yes, because the fights needed to be had – leadership is being able to say no to your own party,” he said. Obama charged Romney had not been able to say no to the “extreme elements” of his own party

In his closing statement, Obama promised to continue to work during the next four years as he has during the first term.

Romney warned four more years for an Obama administration would put the middle class under an even heavier burden than exists now.

Tonight’s debate originally was to be divided into six time segments of about 15 minutes each and focus on domestic policy. The national television audience was estimated to be 50 million.

Going into the event, polls showed the two candidates in a virtual tie, each collecting 47 percent of likely voters, although a report in Politico said Romney led in toss-up states and “it is Obama who is losing ground.”

The events are set up by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan group assembled specifically to organize the campaign debates every four years.

The commission was formed in 1987 and organized presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Obama has had mediocre job-approval numbers and the economy is working against him, with unemployment remaining high despite his spending billions of taxpayer dollars on “stimulus.”

Romney’s economic message, however, hasn’t generated wide enthusiasm as of yet.

Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told the Denver Post the debate is Romney’s “last best chance” to take control of the race.

“He needs to have a moment that gets people to view him differently,” he told the newspaper. “And he needs to articulate some ideas that people think are credible on the economy.”

Dan Schnur, director of a political center at the University of Southern California, told the Post that Obama’s task is to protect his marginal advantage. David Birdsell of Baruch College in New York said short answers tend to make Obama “appear supercilious,” the Post reported.

He said, “The president needs to avoid looking smug, out of touch and arrogant.”

At five weeks ahead of the election, early voting already is beginning in some states.

The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will be at Centre College in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11. Martha Raddatz of ABC News is scheduled to be the moderator. The debate will cover both foreign and domestic topics and be divided into nine segments of about 10 minutes each.

Two more president debates between Romney and Obama will take place Oct. 16 and Oct. 22. The first event is at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and Candy Crowley of CNN will moderate. It will take the form of a town meeting, where citizens will ask questions of the candidates on foreign and domestic issues. The last event will be at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.. Bob Schieffer of CBS’ “Face the Nation” will moderate and the format will be the same as the first.

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