Oct. 3, 2012— -- Mitt Romney came out swinging in the first presidential debate, challenging President Obama over his health care reforms, treatment of the economy, taxes and funding for Sesame Street's Big Bird.
Romney jabbed the president, calling his approach "trickle-down government" and accusing him of spending his time in office concentrating on passing his health care plan at the expense of creating jobs.
"Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed," Romney said.
The debate in Denver was the first of three debates the two candidates will have between them over the next four weeks before Election Day. Their initial meeting was wonky in its discussion of policy details and failed to produce any real fireworks, with both candidates returning to well tread talking points.
Though there was no knock-out punch, observers rated Romney as the stronger debater tonight.
"Mitt Romney did a lot of good. He came to play, came to pivot," said Donna Brazile, an ABC News consultant and Democratic strategist. "Tonight Mitt Romney was a little more aggressive than the president."
George Will, conservative columnist for the Washington Post agreed, saying Romney's performance "stopped [his slump in the polls] in it's tracks."
Meeting each other face-to-face, Romney said he would cut expensive entitlement programs, including the Affordable Health Care Act, which Republicans have nicknamed derisively "Obamacare."
"I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect, by the way," Romney said.
With a quick smile, Obama said, "I like it." At another point in the debate, Obama again expressed his pleasure over the term, saying, "I have become fond of this term."
Romney also called out PBS, the public television station which receives government funding, for cuts, despite telling moderator Jim Lehrer, who works for PBS, "I like Big Bird. I like you, too."
The Big Bird comment erupted online, with internet users calling for a campaign to "save Big Bird," and even have the popular children's puppet run for president.
The debate was centered on domestic issues, focusing on the economy including healthcare, Medicare, taxes, deficits and job creation.
Obama accused Romney of trying "double down" on the failed economic policies of the Bush administration and said Romney's tax plan would incur trillions of dollars in debt.
"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? 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," said Obama.
"But I think math, common sense and our history shows that's not a recipe for job growth," he added.
"Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate," Romney responded.
Romney said Obama's plan to repeal tax cuts for small businesses and the wealthy would prevent new jobs from being created.
Obama quipped, "Under Gov. Romney?s plan?Donald Trump is a small businessman."
Romney said since the president took office gas prices have doubled, and costs of food and insurance have increased.
"Twenty-three million people out of work or stopped looking for work," Romney said of the dreary unemployment figures.
Obama struck back, calling Romney's plans to cut taxes and spending a "unbalanced approach? that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education ... health care for seniors in nursing homes(and) for kids with disabilities."
The debate began with the two candidates shaking hands and Obama acknowledging that it was his 20th wedding anniversary.
"I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me," joked Romney.
At the conclusion of the debate, the Obama and Romney families mingled on stage cheerfully.