• Click here to watch a video replay of the first 2012 presidential debate.
• Click here to read a transcript of the debate.
WASHINGTON — Challenger Mitt Romney used Wednesday's debate to put President Barack Obama on the defensive on health care, jobs and other issues. The president's reluctance to fire back harshly gave new hope to Republican partisans.
Romney managed to highlight his top campaign themes — calling for lower tax rates, less regulation, the repeal of “Obamacare” — while largely fending off Obama's demands for details on how to pay for his proposals or safeguard Americans' health and well-being.
Neither Obama nor the debate's moderator, meanwhile, pressed Romney on some of his most vulnerable points. They included Romney's claim that 47 percent of Americans are docile dependents on the government, a topic heavily featured in TV ads and public conversations the past two weeks.
The 90-minute debate in Denver may have been too wonky to captivate millions of American viewers and change the campaign's overall arc. Polls show Obama leading in key battleground states.
But it delighted Republicans who felt Romney was the aggressor without going overboard, and who were surprised by Obama's cautious, at times listless demeanor.
Even some Democratic partisans grudgingly acknowledged that Romney had a good debate.
“I think he won, unfortunately,” said Karl Amelchenko, 36, a lawyer from Raleigh, N.C., who supports Obama. “Romney was aggressive. He attacked.”
Romney might have scored points with his comments about helping people who have been hit by the recession.
“We can help, but it's going to take a different path,” he said. “The path that we're on has been unsuccessful. Trickle-down government will not work.”
The nominees have two more debates this month, and a government jobs report on Friday could reshape the contest. Obama has aired more TV ads than Romney in several key states, and it's unclear whether Romney can follow his solid debate performance with the type of incisive message that has eluded him so far.
Obama and moderator Jim Lehrer repeatedly failed to force Romney to detail how he would cut tax rates at every income level without expanding the deficit or forcing middle-income people to pay a higher total tax bill.
“If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion and add $2 trillion in additional spending that the military is not asking for,” Obama said, “and you think that by closing loopholes and deductions for the well-to-do, somehow you will not end up picking up the tab, then Gov. Romney's plan may work for you.”
“Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate,” Romney retorted. “I'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut.”
As Romney all but accused Obama of lying about his tax plan, the president alternated between looking directly at his Republican rival and bowing his head to take notes. “Now he's saying his big bold idea is ‘never mind,' ” Obama said.
Romney held his ground. He said he would reduce income tax rates without adding to the deficit and without reducing “the share paid by high-income individuals.”
Economists say Romney has yet to explain how he can manage that feat.
Obama seemed frustrated but almost resigned. He said Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, “put forward a budget that reflects many of the principles that Gov. Romney's talked about. And it wasn't very detailed. This seems to be a trend.”
But rather than press Romney any harder for details, the president moved on.
Obama seemed eager not to appear prickly or angry. He flashed his familiar smile often, and it's possible that many viewers saw him as relaxed and unshaken.
But the president also failed to follow through on some openings, such as when he noted that Romney once said he would reject a deficit-reduction plan even if it called for only $1 in new tax revenues for every $10 in spending cuts.
Obama said he wants “a balanced approach” that would include $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
Obama used the debate's early moments to put the best light on his handling of the economy. He mentioned that the U.S. car industry is rebounding, and the housing market is growing.
Romney replied: “We've got 23 million people out of work or looking for work.”
Both men spoke to middle America, making few references to issues that fire up the right and left fringes.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said Romney “was on offense most of the night, holding Obama accountable for massive investments in green energy, the growing national debt and weak economic recovery. Obama never asked Romney to defend the Bain Capital record, his decision to release only two years of tax returns or the ‘47 percent' comment.”
Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway said Romney “did fine, as expected. But fine doesn't get the job done.” He said Romney failed to “change the dynamics of the race.”
With a month remaining until the election, and early voting under way in many states, Republican partisans hope Hattaway is wrong.
FIGHTING OVER THE FACTS
The debate brought a constant tug-and-pull over the facts: Obama's version versus Romney's.
Romney accused Obama of mischaracterizing several parts of his agenda, from taxes to Wall Street reform. Romney told the president that as the father of five sons, “I'm used to people saying something that's not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it.”
At another point, Romney said, “Mr. President, you're entitled to your own house and your own airplane but not your own facts.”
Obama repeatedly accused Romney of pushing for changes to Medicare that would turn it into a voucher-like program.
To those in the audience, Obama said: “If you're 54 or 55, you might want to listen.”
PBS newsman Jim Lehrer got mixed reviews for his role as the moderator.
The two candidates strayed from the time limits throughout the debate and Lehrer struggled to enforce the set 15-minute segments covering the economy, health care and other topics. The result was a steady back-and-forth between Obama and Romney, with the candidates often talking over themselves.
Many viewers took to Twitter, panning Lehrer's handling of the debate.
Romney even said he'd cut funding for Lehrer's network. “I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS ... I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I'm not going to — I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
Obama was quick to offer praise to Lehrer, though, saying near the end of the debate that he did a “great job.”
If you were a wonk, this was the debate for you. Obama and Romney appeared far more at ease comparing policy ratings than with trading zingers.
“The National Federation of Independent Businesses said your plan will kill 700,000 jobs,” Romney said at one point, accusing Obama of pushing a plan that would hurt small businesses.
In another, Romney cited two groups — the Congressional Budget Office and McKinsey and Co. — as a reason why Obama's health care law was hurting the country. But Obama had his own insider comeback, pointing to the AARP. “And this is not only my opinion. AARP thinks that,” Obama said. “AARP has said that your plan would weaken Medicare substantially.”
For a campaign where a new attack line has emerged nearly every week, exactly zero of this campaign's string of catchphrases made it into the debate.
Obama was silent on “47 percent,” the reference to Romney's now-famous critique of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes.
Likewise, Romney didn't touch Vice President Joe Biden's comment from Tuesday, that the middle class had been “buried” the past four years. However, Romney did use the term “buried” in his own comments, and used another, “crushed,” three times.
Nowhere in Obama's comments was Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital, which the Democrat demonizes as a job-killing corporate predator, nor the fact that Romney has personal assets in Swiss bank accounts.
To complete the parade of hits not made, Romney failed to mention this summer favorite, Obama's “you didn't build it” remark referring to small businesses.
The start of the debate offered a light moment: Obama offered anniversary wishes to his wife, first lady Michelle Obama.
The president said 20 years ago, he “became the luckiest man on earth” when they got married.
Calling the first lady “sweetie,” Obama said from the debate podium that a year from now, “we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.”
Romney offered his congratulations with a touch of humor: “I'm sure it's the most romantic place you can imagine, here with me.”
HEALTH CARE LEVITY
For being a major sticking point, the 2010 health care law — nicknamed “Obamacare” by opponents — became a rare point of lighthearted banter during the debate.
“Obamacare is on my list,” Romney said in listing programs he would eliminate. “I apologize, Mr. President. I use the term with all respect, by the way.” Romney grinned and chuckled in Obama's direction.
But Obama absorbed the critique by embracing the term. “I like it,” Obama replied to Romney, smiling.
Later in the debate, Obama brought it up on his own. “I have become fond of this term, 'Obamacare,' " the president said grinning.