Presidential Debates 2012: Obama, Romney Set to Spar Amid Video Controversy

Obama and Romney set to take the stage for first of three, high-stakes debates.

ByGregory J. Krieg
October 03, 2012, 9:50 AM

Oct. 3, 2012 -- The waiting is nearly over. Six months after he locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney will finally step into the ring with President Obama tonight for their first debate and what could be his last best chance to turn the tide of a campaign that has seen Obama establish slim, but consistent leads in swing-state polls.

The showdown at the University of Denver in Colorado will focus exclusively on domestic issues -- three segments on the economy, one on health care and a finale pegged to "the role of government" in U.S. life -- giving the candidates an opportunity to address a yawning gap in how they'd pay down the country's growing debt.

Romney, who has promised large tax cuts if elected, will surely be challenged to name the loopholes he has, in vague terms, promised to close in order to pay for his plan.

Tune in to today for live-streaming coverage of the first 2012 Presidential Debate from Denver, Colo. Coverage kicks off with ABC News' live preview show at noon, and full debate coverage begins at 8 p.m.

Having occupied the White House during a stop-and-start economic recovery, Obama is expected to face tough questions about his economic policy from Romney, who has repeatedly said the country "cannot afford another four years like the last four years." During a campaign rally Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden said the "middle class has been buried the past four years," only later assigning the blame for that to the George W. Bush administration.

This first of three presidential debates scheduled before Election Day arrives alongside the din surrounding a 5-year-old speech during which then-Sen. Obama gives a friendly shout-out to his controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who is in the audience, and goes on to question, in a departure from his prepared statement, the lack of urgency in the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The video was uncovered by the conservative Daily Caller website, promoted by The Drudge Report for hours Tuesday on Twitter, and broadcast Tuesday night on Sean Hannity's FOX News program.

"Down in New Orleans, where they still have not rebuilt 20 months later," Obama says in the 2007 address, "there's a law, federal law -- when you get reconstruction money from the federal government -- called the Stafford Act. And basically it says, when you get federal money, you've got to give a 10 percent match."

That qualification was instantly dropped, then-candidate Obama reminds the crowd, when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992 and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York City, a decision he also praised.

"What's happening down in New Orleans?" he asks, seeming to affect a more colloquial cadence. "Where's your dollar? Where's your Stafford Act money? Makes no sense. Tells me that somehow, the people down in New Orleans they don't care about as much."

Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson, who originally covered the speech on his old MSNBC show back in 2007 (FOX News aired video back then, too, and ABC News also had a report), Tuesday accused the future president of employing "racial rhetoric designed to make people fearful."

But at another point in his remarks, delivered at Hampton University in Virginia, Obama calls the Bush administration's "incompetence" in dealing with the disaster "colorblind."

The Romney campaign quickly sought to distance itself from the video and its distribution Tuesday night, with spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg stating bluntly: "We did not have any involvement."

Ben LaBolt, a top Obama spokesman, accused "Mitt Romney's allies" of a "transparent attempt to change the subject from [Romney's] comments attacking half of the American people. ... The only thing shocking about this is that they apparently think it's wrong to suggest that we should help returning veterans, children leaving foster care and other members of Mitt Romney's 47 percent get training that will allow them to find the best available jobs."

The Romney camp offered a more thorough review this morning, however.

"The American people will view this video and draw their own conclusions," the campaign source told ABC News. "President Obama's views shape his policies, and his policies have been devastating for our economy. In regards to his comments on Katrina -- just as we did following the tragic 9/11 attacks, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American people responded with billions in tax dollars and private charity to help rebuild New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi because we are one family and we care for our fellow citizens."

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has turned up a new video of its own. Recorded in November 2011, it shows future GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan telling attendees of The American Spectator magazine's Robert L. Bartley Gala Dinner that just "70 percent of Americans want the American dream."

"They believe in the American idea," Ryan says. "Only 30 percent want the welfare state. Before too long, we could become a society where the net majority of Americans are 'takers,' not 'makers.'"

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