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Debate 2012: Romney and Obama attack, Jim Lehrer loses control -- the media room view

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For example, after a lengthy back and forth on Medicare, Lehrer interrupted by saying, "Can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice, a clear choice between the two of you on Medicare?"

"Absolutely," Romney said as Obama replied, "Yes."

There was also significant disagreement -- which would be clear to anyone who has attended rallies featuring the two -- on what their respective tax plans would mean for the middle class.

"This is where there's a difference because Governor Romney's central economic plan calls for a five trillion dollar tax cut, on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts," Obama said near the beginning of the debate. "So that's another trillion dollars. And two trillion dollars in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for. That's eight trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit and make the investments that we need to make without dumping those costs on the middle-class Americans I think is one of the central questions of this campaign."

Romney responded: "I'd like to clear up the record and go through it piece by piece. First of all, I don't have a five trillion dollar tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of the scale that you're talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am. The people who are having the hard time right now are middle-income Americans."

In a notably Twitter-friendly moment, Romney later described his proposed cuts while throwing in a joke about Sesame Street.

He said, "I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. Obamacare is on my list. I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect.

"I like it," the president said.

"Good," Romney replied. "So I'll get rid of that. I'm sorry, Jim. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things -- I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too."

On health care, Obama argued that Romney's opposition was ironic given his own record of adopting an "identical model" in Massachusetts, saying further that Romney hasn't offered any concrete alternative ideas other than stating his plans to repeal the health care plan the president adopted.

Romney said that under his plan, pre-existing conditions would be covered and young people would be able to stay on their family plan, but argued that Obama's health care plan is irresponsible and that government is "not effective in bringing down the cost of almost anything."

The two also sparred over regulation of Wall Street, with Obama saying, "Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that's not what I believe."

Romney interjected: "Sorry...that's just not the facts. Look, we have to have regulation of Wall Street. That's why I'd have regulation. But I wouldn't designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That's one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank [a Wall Street reform act]. It wasn't thought through properly."

Both closed with a predictable promise to the middle class.

Obama said: "Four years ago, I said that I'm not a perfect man and I wouldn't be a perfect president. And that's probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I've kept. But I also promised that I'd fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class and all those who are striving to get in the middle class."

Romney concluded by saying, "I will not cut our commitment to our military. I will keep America strong and get America's middle class working again."

Continue for an expert analysis of the debate from the University of Denver.

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin