Just 34 days before the election, the debate could be a crucial moment in the race for the White House, especially if Mr Romney is deemed to have done well after weeks of campaign missteps and discouraging polls numbers.
Anna Fifield, the FT’s US political correspondent, is covering the debate live with assistance from Arash Massoudi in New York and with additional comments from FT colleagues. All times are EST.
23.02 And with that, we’re signing off at the FT’s live election blog. Keep checking FT.com for news and analysis over the coming hours as we examine how this debate shapes the course of the campaign.
23.00 The question of which presidential candidate is more fiscally responsible is likely to come up repeatedly over the remaining days of the election.
Mr Obama said Mr Romney’s tax cuts would cost $5tn, portraying him as fiscally reckless. Mr Romney denied any such suggestion and railed against the president’s healthcare plan. We can expect this story line to endure.
22.57 Some commentators were pleasantly surprised by the level of detail in tonight’s debate, especially on taxes and Medicare, compared to previous campaign discussions.
22.55 After the debate, two of Mr Obama’s top campaign advisers, David Axelrod and Stephanie Cutter, both conceded that Mr Romney won on style, even as they said the president won on substance.
22.50 The view from a debate watching party hosted by the New York Young Republicans Club, where spirits are more upbeat:
22.47 John McDermott reports from a Democratic watch party in the mid-west:
Subdued mood here in Independence, Missouri. ‘You’ve seen what we’re up against’, says one volunteer trying to organise the GOTV [get out the vote]. This is about as far from a statistically sound sample as you can imagine, but general deflation here.
22.45 With the debate over, the punditocracy is taking over.
Mr Obama is likely to hear more critiques of his preparation for tonight’s debate. Meanwhile, Mr Romney managed to exceed lower expectations and avoided the kind of gaffes that have plagued his campaign. He appears to have improved his prospects in the race.
Based on the odds from Intrade, the online prediction site, Mr Romney’s chances of being elected president were lifted from 25 per cent to 32 per cent.
22.37 Who won the debate? Tell us in the comment section below.
22.35 After the debate, both candidates’ families took to the stage, creating rather strange optics. Mr Obama was shaking hands with Mr Romney’s sons, and the candidates’ wives were all smiles. Incongruous after they had been deriding each other for 90 minutes.
22.33 Ed Luce wonders what went wrong with the president’s preparation.
22.32 Jim Lehrer closes the debate. No sign of Big Bird. Please share your thoughts on the debate in our comment section below.
22.32 Mr Romney is presenting himself as the saviour of the middle class, saying he will get incomes up again, and predicting financial armageddon if Mr Obama is returned to the White House.
22.31 Mr Obama says he never promised to be a perfect man or perfect president — “that’s probably a promise Governor Romney will say I’ve kept” — but says he will continue fighting.
22.30 Mr Obama says: “Everything I’ve tried to do… all those things are designed to make sure the American people, their genius, their grit, their determination, is channelled and they have the opportunity to succeed.”
22.29 Closing statements and Mr Obama is going first. The president said his faith in this country is undiminished, citing people in North Carolina and Minnesota he has met, as well as auto-workers in Ohio and Michigan.
22.28 With only a few minutes to go, Mr Obama looks like he is finally hitting his stride. His tone and tempo have suddenly picked up. But pundits will say it is too little, too late.
22.24 Bill Maher, a comedian and one-million dollar donor to the Obama campaign aligned super-PAC, is disheartened with the president’s performance tonight.
22.23 Another one of Mr Romney’s promised zingers: “You’re entitled to your own airplane…but not your own facts.”
22.20 The candidates are talking about education at length, quite a turn of events. Education as an issue is seldom discussed on the campaign trail, especially not in comparison with other social issues.
22.18 As the candidates move onto discussion of governing — starting with a Lincoln reference from Mr Obama — it is becoming clear that this race is far from over.
22.14 The Twitterverse is not impressed with Jim Lehrer’s running of the debate. There’s already a new handle attacking the moderator: @SilentJimLehrer
And here’s a photo from the contest:
22.10 Mr Romney outlines his plan for healthcare reform by saying he would keep two key provisions of “Obamacare” — stopping insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, and allowing dependents to stay on their parents’ plans until they are 26.
Mr Romney highlights his experience at Bain Capital, something he seldom does in this kind of detail, saying he used to consult for private hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic.
22.08 Mr Obama looks flat-footed. He makes a point of not letting Jim Lehrer stop him talking — “I had five seconds left until you interrupted me” — but then struggled to come up with his next point. His answers on healthcare and Medicare in particular seem rather rambling. In contrast, Mr Romney’s appears practiced and is delivering more polished answers.
22.05 Paul Ryan, Mr Romney’s running-mate, tweets some words of encouragement to his party leader.
22.04 At a Republican watch-party in downtown Manhattan, the consensus among the partisan attendees seems to be that Mr Romney is the clear winner so far, says Anjli Raval, a FT reporter. Here are some of the views from the gathering:
“He’s talking in specifics, taking charge, showing leadership. Obama is back peddling” said Chris Hamilton, a New York Young Republican.
“One of the biggest criticisms of Romney has been that he hasn’t provided enough detail. Obama was not expecting this performance and is on the defensive,” said Khalil Haddad, a finance professional in the beverage industry.
22.00 Wall Street. Romney talks about repealing Dodd-Frank, calls the reforms the “biggest kiss to Wall Street”. This seems like a risky approach for a man who spent most of his professional life in finance and is the overwhelming beneficiary of its political donations this year.
21.57 Feel free to share your thoughts on how the candidates are performing below, in our comment section.
21.55 Mr Romney’s comments on the need for regulation have surprised, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a FT correspondent in Washington.
21.53 Ed Luce is finding the debate hard going.
21.51 Mr Obama’s performance is disappointing his supporters on Twitter, who are wondering what’s gotten into their president tonight. Mr Obama does offer a good line however, talking about healthcare: “I have become fond of this term, Obamacare.”
21.50 Much of the conversation ahead of the debate focused on possible mistakes that candidates might make tonight, down to the colour tie the men might wear. John McDermott points out that content has much more policy and numbers focused than in past debates.
21.46 Asked about Social Security, Mr Obama appears to have committed a gaffe.
Inexplicably, he says he and Mr Romney have similar views on Social Security, the pension scheme for the elderly. This seems like a mis-step given that Paul Ryan, Mr Romney’s running mate, has proposed swingeing cuts to entitlement programmes.
21.45 Cardiff Garcia, of FT’s Alphaville, agrees that Mr Obama looks rusty.
21.41 Twitter is abuzz with observations about how nervous Mr Obama seems tonight. Almost halfway through the debate and the president doesn’t look comfortable on stage, says Steve Clemons, political blogger at the Washington Note.
21.37 John McDermott, the FT’s executive comment editor, weighs in from Independence, Missouri:
“I’m in the home of Harry Truman, in the local Demoratic party’s debate night, at the Diamond Bowl alley Verdict so far is that the onion rings are putting in a strong performance.”
21.35 Mr Romney has brought up his favourite example of trickle-down gone wrong: Europe. He cites Spain as a country where the kind of economic approach he says Mr Obama is advocating has gone wrong.
21.34 Here’s what one writer at New York Magazine has to say about Big Bird’s neck being on the line.
21.30 A zinger aimed at Jim Lehrer, the debate moderator. Outlining budget cuts he’d make, Mr Romney says he would stop the subsidy for PBS (the public broadcasting service where Mr Lehrer works) but adds, somewhat incongruously: “I love Big Bird, and I like you too.”
Folks on Twitter are going wild over the idea of cutting Big Bird, a popular character from the children’s television show Sesame Street.
21.28 It doesn’t take long for the ghost of former president George W Bush to appear in the debate. Mr Obama hits Mr Romney for proposing an approach that has been tried before, referring to Mr Bush’s presidency, during which the financial crisis began.
21.27 Mr Romney is doing a good job not only at providing more detail but also tying his answers to real people that he has met on the campaign trail, creating a sense that his policies can have impact on ordinary Americans.
21.23 Mr Obama offers his own zinger — bringing up Donald Trump only 20 minutes into the debate. The tycoon is something of an albatross around Mr Romney’s neck, thanks to his fringe “birther” theories. Mr Obama calls Mr Trump one of the “small businessmen” that Mr Romney is trying to help.
Mr Obama: “Donald Trump doesn’t like to think of himself as small anything.”
21.22 Ed Luce, the FT’s chief US political commentator, says Mr Romney is getting his points across better so far.
21.19 Has Mr Romney just fired his first “zinger”? He tells the president: “Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying things that aren’t true and hoping I’ll believe it.”
21.16 Mr Romney is trying to show that he will not favour wealthy people in a direct riposte to the Obama campaign’s attacks. This seems like an attempt to distance himself from controversy over a leaked video in which he made comments about the “47 per cent” of America who he disparaged as welfare “victims”.
21.15 Mr Romney has made a notable change to his pitch in recent days. In the debate he says: “High income people will do just fine, whether you’re president or I’m president.” This elicits a smile from Mr Obama, who has been hitting at the Republican for supporting “millionaires and billionaires”.
21.12 Mr Obama said he and his rival agreed that the corporate tax rate was too low, but soon moved on from commonalities to talk about tax cuts. He says the extension of the Bush tax cuts would hurt the middle class.
21.11 Mr Romney criticised the president for his “trickle down” approach. Asked to respond, Mr Obama said the gains are already showing, citing the Race to the Top education reforms that he said would create jobs for teachers.
21.10 Mr Romney has been listening to his critics. He’s straight in with a five-point plan for creating jobs, including energy independence and helping small businesses to start up.
21.08 Mr Obama starts by wishing his wife a happy 20th anniversary and assures her they won’t be celebrating it in front of 40m people next year. The lack of audience reaction is odd. Mr Obama laid out his standard stump-speech for job creation.
Mr Romney responded by wishing Mr Obama’s wife a happy anniversary, then goes straight into a real-person anecdote about job losses. A strong start from the Republican.
21.06 The first question is on how the two candidates differ on job creation, a central theme of the campaign. Mr Obama answers first.
21.05 Jim Lehrer spells out the rules for tonight’s debate and says the audience has promised to remain silent throughout the debate. He choose the topics and they will largely focused on the economy. And the candidates take the stage…
20.59 And standby for the beginning of the debate…
20.58 Here’s a photo from Richard McGregor at the media scrum assembled at a hockey rink nearby the debate:
20.55 Tonight’s host will be Jim Lehrer, the veteran PBS Newshour anchor, who is hosting his 12th presidential or vice-presidential debate.
One of the most celebrated moderators of his era, Mr Lehrer will be tasked with keeping the night’s discussion focused on domestic issues including the economy, healthcare, and the role of the government. He will also enforce the debate rules, including time limits on each candidate’s responses.
20.51 This might be a high-tech election, with each campaign using “micro-targetting” and social media outreach, but some parts of it are delightfully old school. How did they decide who would speak first tonight? With a good old-fashioned coin toss.
Mr Obama won the toss for the first question and chose to go first, meaning he will have the first word tonight.
20.49 And in a sign of pre-debate civility, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have exchanged hugs and taken their seats at the front of the audience.
20.47 Reporters travelling with Mr Obama tonight say that the president has now arrived at the debate venue.
On the way in, he passed crowds of supporter for Mr Romney who held signs that read, “Fire Obama”. And typical of US politics, on the other side of the road, there were fans of the president holding large signs saying “Forward”, his campaign slogan.
20.43 Reports are filtering out that Mr Romney is having dinner from the Cheesecake Factory before the debate tonight. The Cheesecake Factory is a chain of restaurants that aims to offer fancy food – miso-seared ahi tuna, anyone? – at family-friendly prices.
And here’s tweet from DG Jackson, Mr Romney’s closest personal aide, showing what the Republican nominee had for dinner tonight.
20.37 Before the candidates square off tonight, let’s take a quick look at the polls to see the current state of the race.
Mr Obama has maintained a slim but consistent lead in most polls since Mr Romney locked up Republican nomination. The candidates were tied in the Real Clear Politics Average, which combines eight major nationwide polls, as recently as September 6, before Mr Obama opened up as much as a 4.3-point lead. The most recent numbers show a 3.1-point lead for Mr Obama.
Polling has been under particularly heavy scrutiny this election season, with pundits claiming some of the studies over-count Democratic voters.
Colorado, home to tonight’s debate and nine crucial electoral college votes, is considered up for grabs in this election after going for Mr Obama in 2008 by nine points. The president currently has a 3.1-point lead, among his largest in the state since Mr Romney became the Republican nominee.
20.32 Mr Obama will have to defend his healthcare reforms during tonight’s debate, and he will be aided by the Supreme Court’s ruling that they were constitutional, including the “individual mandate” forcing almost all Americans to have some sort of medical insurance.
But Mr Romney will also be on the defensive, having to explain why he was for reforms in Massachusetts but is now against them nationally. His efforts to not appear like a flip-flopper will be made all the more difficult by the fact he has been moderating his position in the months since he became the Republican party’s presumptive nominee.
From vowing to repeal the entire “Obamacare” law, Mr Romney is now saying that he will keep the most popular parts of it.
20.25 While Mr Romney might be able to draw on his business record to dazzle the audience during the discussion on the US economy, he will have to address a thornier part of his track record with the second topic: healthcare.
When he was governor of Massachusetts, Mr Romney oversaw sweeping changes to the healthcare system. These reforms later became the template for Mr Obama’s federal overhaul, now commonly derided by Republicans as “Obamacare”.
Mr Obama’s reforms, the signature achievement of his first year in office, are widely unpopular across the country, even though individual parts of them are very popular. The conservative Tea Party in particular has seized on the reforms as evidence of the president’s big government, “socialist” approach.
20.20 Mr Romney’s campaign was caught off guard earlier this month by a video that surfaced from a May fundraiser that showed the former Massachusetts governor saying that the 47 per cent of Americans, who did not pay income taxes, considered themselves “victims” and entitled to government handouts.
But the campaign has made up some ground in recent days after a gaffe by Joe Biden, the US vice president, about the middle class being “buried” over the last four years. A video re-released last night from a 2007 speech given by Mr Obama, who appeared to suggest that African-Americans had been discriminated against in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, also stoked strong responses.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama has his work cut out for him tonight as the incumbent must defend his record on the economy on stage tonight. Ed Luce, the FT’s chief US political commentator, says the president has yet to face sustained questioning on the topic and the fact that Mr Romney has invested more time in prepping for tonight’s showdown may give him an advantage:
“This president has had little recent practice at fielding sustained questioning on the economy. Should Mr Romney draw blood there is still time for Mr Obama’s luck to change. Sensibly, perhaps, Mr Romney has been preparing for the debates for almost three months. It is his last real hope.”
20.05 All eyes tonight are on President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney as the two presidential candidates are set to square off in the first of three debates before next month’s US election. With Mr Romney trailing in the national and key swing state polls, the event is being billed as the Republican contender’s best chance to narrow Mr Obama’s lead.
Richard McGregor, the FT’s Washington bureau chief, is covering the event from Denver and will be sharing his observations throughout the night. Here’s how he said the Romney camp is approaching the debate:
“Mr Romney’s advisers have said they expect the Republican challenger to be polite but aggressive in making his points, a delicate balance in front of what will be the largest mainstream audience he has enjoyed in the presidential race.”