Obama subdued and defensive in first of three televised debates before next month's presidential election
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the White House, delivered a knock-out blow in the first presidential debate during which President Barack Obama gave a lacklustre and defensive performance.
Their 90-minute exchange before an expected television audience of more than 50 million covered domestic policies ranging from tax cuts and bank reform to healthcare, education and the federal Government's role.
With the latest polls giving the President a 3 per cent lead nationally, the debate in Denver, Colorado, provided a stark reminder that the election in one month is Obama's to lose.
Obama's campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, acknowledged afterwards that "Mitt Romney absolutely wins the preparation. And he wins the style points."
Romney was the one who came across as more presidential. The President, who was the first man invited to speak by moderator Jim Lehrer, seemed nervous and took notes as Romney engaged him directly.
Bizarrely, Obama looked at Lehrer when it was his turn to speak. The President showed signs of any fire in his belly only in the closing moments of the debate, the first of three before the November 7 election.
Both men had been coached intensively for the debate and Romney was ready for every criticism Obama threw his way, with personal anecdotes and facts and figures to hand.
As the Democratic President and the Republican nominee set out their competing visions for restoring the country's fortunes, Romney strongly denied having plans for US$5 trillion in tax cuts and pledged to "lower the taxes on middle-income families". As Obama explained that a balanced solution, including tax increases, would be needed to boost the economy, the former Massachusetts Governor retorted that "you raise taxes and you kill jobs".
The challenge for Romney was to overcome the perception that he is a super-rich elitist unable to connect with average voters struggling to make a living. Twice, towards the end of the debate, Obama reminded viewers that the multimillionaire had suggested that young people could "borrow money from their parents" to go to university.
Romney referred repeatedly to people he had met on the campaign trail, and invoked his plans to help middle-class Americans. But while he cited his past business and administrative experience, he was short on detail when pressed by Obama to explain what he would do in place of Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank banking reform legislation.
However, a confident Romney contrasted what he would do in office compared with a second-term Obama Administration which, he said, would oversee a continued "middle-class squeeze".
Only a day earlier, Vice-President Joe Biden had made one of his trademark gaffes by saying the middle class had been "buried" during the past four years.