President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney square off Wednesday at a University of Denver sports arena for the first of three presidential debates that could be crucial to the 2012 election.
Given the central importance of the economy, this debate—focused on economic and domestic issues—may well be the most important. Here’s a guide to the basic details, plus the issues likely to be raised, an assessment of the candidates’ positions and a look at their vulnerabilities:
TIME: 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012
FORMAT: Six segments of 15 minutes each. Three on the economy; plus one on health care, one on governing, and one on the role of government.
THE HOST: PBS’s Jim Lehrer
TV: The first debate will air on the major networks and cable news channels: NBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, PBS, Univision, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC all plan to cover it. WSJ.com will have a live video feed and will be live blogging.
OBAMA: Supports targeted tax breaks to encourage companies to expand in the U.S., bring jobs home and increase manufacturing. Promotes education and infrastructure investments to grow “from the middle class out,” not top down.
ROMNEY: Pushes a tax-code overhaul—including 20% rate cuts—plus reduced regulation and government spending, and increased trade. Emphasizes freedom from government interference for small businesses to unleash economic potential.
WATCH FOR: Obama has scored points by depicting Romney’s plan as benefiting the rich at the expense of the middle class. Romney casts Obama as out of his depth and out of ideas, and says his policies depress job creation.
Cutting the deficit
ROMNEY: Terms high deficits immoral. Would reduce federal spending to 20% of GDP from the current 23% and would cut discretionary spending and entitlements, while protecting defense and retirees and near-retirees. Says he would make his tax cut revenue neutral by reducing exemptions.
OBAMA: Favors what he terms a balanced mix of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy. Proposes about $1 in increased taxes for every $2.50 in budget cuts, while maintaining investments in education and research.
WATCH FOR: Obama says Romney’s budget cuts would hurt the vulnerable while his tax cuts would explode the deficit. Romney disputes that, says his policies foster growth and charges Obama isn’t serious on deficits.
Making Medicare and Social Security sustainable
OBAMA: Says he is open to overhauling Social Security, likely by having the well-to-do pay more while future benefit growth is curbed. Also is willing to consider bigger changes to Medicare as part of broader deficit reduction. But the campaign has avoided specific proposals.
ROMNEY: Wants to preserve current benefits for retirees and near-retirees. Would give future seniors a fixed amount to buy coverage through traditional Medicare or competing plans. Would reduce benefits for the wealthy, maintain them for lower-income people.
WATCH FOR: Obama says Romney would effectively end Medicare’s guarantee of coverage by converting the program into a voucher. Romney says quality of coverage would improve, and Obama is failing to prevent a fiscal train wreck.
ROMNEY: Extends all Bush rates and cuts individual income rates another 20%, and eliminates the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, as well as investment taxes for middle class. Also wants to cut corporate rates to 25%. Hasn’t given details on how he’d offset budget impacts.
OBAMA: Would extend Bush-era tax cuts for couples under $250,000, end them for higher earners, and create a new tax for people making $1 million or more. Has floated a corporate rate cut to 28% from the current 35%.
WATCH FOR: Obama charges that Romney wants to cut taxes for the rich while raising them for the middle class. Romney says his plan would do the opposite, and he warns that Obama will raise taxes on small-business job creators.
Role of the Fed
OBAMA: Supports a “strong and independent” central bank, but hasn’t weighed in on the Fed’s recent bond-buying programs designed to spur economic growth. Praised Chairman Ben Bernanke’s “bold” action in re-nominating him in 2009.
ROMNEY: Has criticized the Fed’s decision to launch a third round of bond-buying and has said he would replace Mr. Bernanke. Supports auditing the Fed, but wouldn’t want the central bank to cede its independence to Congress.
WATCH FOR: A Fed discussion would give Romney an opening to say the Fed is having to act to overcome Obama’s weak economic stewardship. But Bernanke is widely perceived as preventing economic calamity, even drawing praise from one of Romney’s top economic advisers.
OBAMA: Announced in June that his administration would permit many young illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S., and supports Dream Act’s path to citizenship. Favors broader reform combining more secure borders with expansion of the legal immigration system, but didn’t make it a priority.
ROMNEY: Favors a long-term immigration overhaul but opposes amnesty. Wants to tighten borders and crack down on undocumented workers. Opposed the Dream Act’s path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, but expressed interest in giving them legal status. Would not deport young immigrants who received work permits under Obama’s order. Favors easing rules for job creators and highly skilled immigrants.
WATCH FOR: Romney has labeled Obama’s new immigration stance a politically expedient measure instead of a long-term fix. But its popularity with Latinos helps Obama cast Republicans as obstructionist.
Access to health care
OBAMA: Points to his 2010 Affordable Care Act, or ACA, as a major advance in coverage, particularly for women, young people, seniors and lower-wage workers and small businesses. Says it’s also extending Medicare’s solvency by taking subsidies from insurers.
ROMNEY: Attacks the health reform as a bureaucratic tangle that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and undermine Medicare by raiding provider funding. Calls for repealing ACA and giving states more power to expand coverage and reduce costs.
WATCH FOR: Romney says heatlh reform is a prime example of Obama’s expansion of government. That attack, though, is diluted by his authorship of a Massachusetts health-care overhaul.
Improving cooperation in Washington
OBAMA: Hopes Republican lawmakers whose professed top priority was to defeat him will find more reason to compromise after the election. Says he envisions in a second term more direct outreach to voters so they will pressure Congress to move past gridlock.
ROMNEY: Points to his bipartisan work as the governor of Massachusetts, when Democrats had overwhelming legislative majorities. One reason he’s been vague on policy details is to leave room for compromise across the aisle, he said in an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
WATCH FOR: Romney says Obama was unable to break Washington’s gridlock as promised, even when he had Democratic majorities in Congress. Obama says Romney’s concept of compromise doesn’t ask Wall Street or the wealthy to sacrifice