Wednesday debate provided Americans with their first chance to see the candidates face-off on the same stage.
Wednesday debate provided Americans with their first chance to see the candidates face-off on the same stage.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — For more than a year Mitt Romney has criticized President Obama from afar. Hopping from state to state, from rally to rally, he has slammed the president over his policies and called for a more conservative path for the country.

Romney finally got his chance Wednesday night to face down the president in person, and he appeared to make the most of it with a direct critique of Obama’s first term that was cogent and sharp.

All the pressure was on the challenger to perform well after a recent slide in the polls, and he did. Without taking any major risks, committing any unforced blunders, or delivering any rehearsed zingers, Romney struck an effective balance between attacks on Obama’s record and a broad rendering of his own leadership style.

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At the same time, his policy proposals on taxes and health care remained mostly vague, even as they reflected a strikingly more moderate shift by Romney in the last two weeks.

In confrontations that were shown in split-screen on television, Romney often turned to Obama and recited negative economic statistics, as if he were a Harvard Business School professor critiquing the performance of a struggling student.

In one of his strongest moments of the debate, Romney faced Obama and declared, “Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it with the American people who are struggling today.”

Obama is enjoying a lead in the polls in swing states, which may have encouraged him to adopt a curiously cautious approach to the debate. He was understated and technical in his answers. The tactic allowed Romney plenty of room to pound his message while rarely taking the defensive. Obama never once mentioned Bain Capital, for instance, or Romney’s call to let Detroit go bankrupt, or the Republican’s repeated flip-flops and contortions on policy issues that have been a hallmark of his political career in Massachusetts and on the national stage.

Romney made a concerted effort to shore up a key weakness by demonstrating more empathy for everyday Americans. He described how he and his wife, Ann, have been approached by parents and spouses who have been battered by the economy. He defended Social Security, education spending, and insurance coverage for preexisting conditions. He rattled off statistics that he said showed middle-class families have struggled in the last four years, while repeatedly slamming Obama for cutting Medicare spending to pay for the president’s health care plan and investing $90 billion in green energy jobs that Romney implied was wasted.

But Romney also evaded specifics of his own plans at numerous junctures. Romney would not detail how he would pass big cuts in tax rates for the wealthy while not raising taxes on the middle class. He would not say what elements of the Dodd-Frank financial industry overhaul he would reinstate after repealing it. And he would not say how he would retool the American health care system after rolling back the president’s health plan.

“At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they’re going to be too good?’’ Obama said. “Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”

Obama has enjoyed a surge in polls after he won the the battle of the party conventions — when the candidates sparred in highly scripted affairs from a distance, over two weeks, from Tampa and from Charlotte, N.C. Wednesday night it was time for hand-to-hand combat. By the time the candidates strode onto the stage Wednesday night, intense pressure had built on Romney to deliver a stellar performance.

Could the former Massachusetts governor come across as a clear and confident leader? Or would he lapse into the calculating, test-marketed version of himself, the one who sometimes seems to be groping for what he believes might be the right answer? Viewers mostly got the former, Graham Wilson, the chairman of the political science department at Boston University, said.

“I thought it was a really good night for Romney,” he said. “I thought he seemed livelier and crisper, and more forceful, and Obama seemed reticent and even hesitant in his presentation.’’

“It gave Romney the Etch-a-Sketch moment he was looking for,’’ Wilson added, referring to a comment by Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom that the candidate would start with a fresh canvas — like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch — after the primary.

While the debate veered toward the wonkish, and memorable lines may not have been uttered, Romney’s ability to stand with the president marked what his campaign will try to say is a turning point.

Romney may very well get a bounce in the polls, with five weeks of campaigning to go and two more debates, one on foreign policy. The Republican needs a turnaround, with polls revealing significant deficits in likability as well as confidence in his ability to handle a range of issues. Yes, Romney has hammered Obama all campaign season on his handling of the economy. But before Wednesday night he had failed to put a human dimension on that argument by demonstrating empathy for the struggles of everyday Americans.

To that end, Romney recited the numbers of people on food stamps, the rising numbers of families in poverty. It gave him a more compassionate profile, even while he railed against the size of government. He repeatedly harped on what he said was Obama’s “trickle-down government” approach.

The debate also provided Americans their first chance to see the two architects of the most significant health insurance reforms stand side by side — the Massachusetts health care overhaul, and Obama’s federal plan of 2010.

The president repeated his favorite response to Romney’s attacks, saying his plan was based on the program Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s plan was “essentially the identical model,” Obama said.

Romney, who had been under pressure from some Republicans to apologize for passing his plan, similarly made a strategic decision in how to handle questions about it.

“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts” with bipartisan support, Romney said, contrasting it with how Obama’s plan was passed without Republican support. Romney said he would let states work out their own solutions.

Romney had performed well in debates during the Republican primary contest. But the competition was not as formidable, the focus of the entire nation not as direct.

Wednesday night, one question was whether he could repair some of the damage wrought by secretly recorded remarks in Florida this year, when he was taped telling financial backers he need not concern himself with 47 percent of Americans. That outburst of apparent insensitivity played perfectly into the negative stereotype of Romney as an out-of-touch defender of the wealthy.

Nothing Obama said in the debate revived that version of Romney in viewers’ minds.