President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face off in first debate

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DENVER (AP) — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney clashed over taxes, deficits and how to revive the U.S. economy as they shared the stage for the first time Wednesday in a high-stakes debate with the power to reshape the race for the White House.

Obama said Romney wanted to return to the policies that hurt the U.S. economy. Romney said Obama’s policies had failed and America needs a change.

“Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today,” Romney said.

The showdown was critical for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. With five weeks to go before the election, polls show Obama leading in the most important states in what is a state-by-state vote that decides the presidency. Still, the race remains tight and the threedebates this month give Romney an opportunity to shift the momentum, taking on Obama before a television audience of millions.

Wednesday’s debate might be the most important of the three, with its focus on domestic issues. The weak economy, with unemployment at 8.1 percent, has dominated the race. Romney said that under Obama’s policies “middle-income families are being crushed.”

Obama has argued that he prevented a meltdown after inheriting an economy in free fall from the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Obama accused Romney of wanting to “double down on the top-down policies” that led to the economic crash four years ago.

After Romney said he would repeal and replace regulations passed after the 2008 financial crisis, Obama responded: “Does anyone think there is too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street?” If so, ” Gov. Romney is your candidate.”

Obama said his opponent’s plan to reduce all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle income taxpayers. Romney shot back: “Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.”

But the debate began on a friendly note. The two rivals clasped hands and smiled as they strode onto the debate stage at the University of Denver, then waved to the audience before taking their places behind identical podiums. They faced questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS.

There was a quick moment of laughter, when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama as “sweetie” and noted it was their 20th anniversary. Romney added best wishes, and said to the first couple, “I’m sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me.”

Many commentators and viewers were sure to focus on the style and body language of the two candidates. Romney often comes across as stiff and distant, while Obama is seen as warmer and more empathetic with everyday Americans. Polls show that most people expect Obama to outperform him at the debate.

But beyond the attention to the candidates’ mannerisms, this debate also provided a showcase for the candidates’ clear-cut difference in philosophies. Romney and fellow Republicans see the federal government as too big, taxing Americans excessively, running up deficits and hindering job creation through unnecessary regulations. Obama and his fellow Democrats see government as a potential force for good, providing the infrastructure and education needed in a dynamic economy and giving even poor Americans the opportunity to succeed.

Though Election Day is more than a month away, many Americans have already started casting ballots because some states allow early voting. That puts extra pressure on Romney to come up with a showing strong enough to alter the course of the campaign.

In what has become an American political tradition, both campaigns have tried to lower expectations for their candidates’ performances in the debate, lavishing praise on their rival’sdebating skills. And just as inevitably, they will declare their candidate the runaway winner just as soon as the debate ends — if not sooner.

Romney took part in 19 debates during the campaign for the Republican primary early in the year. Obama has not been onstage with a political opponent since his last face-to-face encounter with John McCain, his Republican rival in 2008.

The next two debates are Oct. 16 in New York and Oct. 22 in Florida.

Vice President Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, congressman Paul Ryan, have one debate, Oct. 11 in Kentucky.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.