US presidential debate: Mitt Romney reopens race for the White House

Mitt Romney reopened the race for the White House after securing victory over Barack Obama in the first presidential debate and revitalising Republicans who had feared his campaign was heading for defeat.

The former Massachusetts governor declared that he had offered struggling Americans a “very different vision for the country” with a performance that confounded critics and left Mr Obama floundering.

In a 90-minute showdown in Colorado watched by 58 million, Mr Romney attacked Mr Obama for the weak state of the American economy at the end of his first term, while making an unusually impassioned case for why he, instead, should be elected next month.

He accused the President of inflicting a “trickle-down government” of ever-growing control by Washington on Americans, turning Mr Obama’s accusation that the Republican challenger favoured “trickle-down economics” against him.

“I don’t think that’s what America believes in,” Mr Romney said on Thursday during a surprise appearance at a conservative conference, where he took a victory lap among gleeful supporters.

A snap poll by CNN found two thirds of registered voters thought Mr Romney had won and only a quarter Mr Obama. A CBS survey found 46 per cent thought Mr Romney bettered the President, while only 22 per cent said Mr Obama had won.

Mr Romney, a 65-year-old grandfather frequently accused of being a dull and unengaging candidate, displayed more energy and enthusiasm than the Democratic incumbent 14 years his junior who so electrified Americans four years ago. Only 30 per cent of voters had predicted a Romney win.

The President appeared lethargic and disengaged, repeatedly looking away from Mr Romney and taking notes while the Republican challenger directed arguments to his face.

A chastened Mr Obama told a morning rally on Thursday that he had clashed with “a very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney”, but argued that “the real Mitt Romney” would wreck the country with extremist policies that he had repeatedly hidden from voters during their onstage encounter.

“If you want to be president, you have to tell the American people the truth,” said Mr Obama. He accused his opponent of disguising plans to gut spending on education and to raise taxes on middle-class families in order to give tax breaks to higher earners.

Mr Obama attempted to use the debate to expose the lack of detail in Mr Romney’s plan to cut all income taxes by 20 per cent while not increasing America’s $1.2 trillion (£740 billion) budget deficit and not increasing the burden on average earners by ending other tax benefits.

He repeatedly stressed that non-partisan economists had said Mr Romney’s plan was simply impossible. “It’s math,” he said. “It’s arithmetic”.

Mr Romney, however, simply denied ordinary households would suffer, wrong-footing the President by abruptly styling himself as a moderate. “I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about,” he said, abandoning the rhetoric of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

He even risked angering the Right-wing Republican “base” by embracing the health care reform he passed in Massachusetts. Mr Romney said the scheme, which was the basis of the nationwide “ObamaCare” reform loathed by conservatives, proved he had a record of forging bipartisan deals.

Seeming to concede that the Republican slipped free from his grasp, Mr Obama said on Thursday: “I had to spend a lot of time last night trying to pin him down”.

Jennifer Anderson, a 51-year-old supporter at the rally, said: “I wish he had been a little more aggressive to meet Romney on his terms”.

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s top strategist in the 1992 election, said: “President Obama came in, he wanted to have a conversation. Mitt Romney came in with a chainsaw.”

Republicans hope the performance will transform a race that had appeared to be drifting away. Its effect will filter into opinion polls in coming days.

Mr Romney trails Mr Obama in all 10 key battleground states, according to RealClearPolitics, and is also behind nationally by an average of 3.1 percentage points. An Reuters/Ipsos poll of 536 voters found Mr Romney had gained ground, with him being viewed positively by 51 per cent of voters, the first time he has had a net positive in the race. Mr Obama was unchanged at 56 per cent.

Seeking to capitalise, Mr Romney will on Monday deliver his first major speech on foreign policy on US soil during the general election campaign.

He is expected to revive criticisms of Mr Obama’s handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador to Libya. On Thursday, a team of FBI agents were finally allowed to visit the compound where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

Pressure now falls on Joe Biden, Mr Obama’s gaffe-prone deputy, to revive Democratic morale in the campaign’s sole vice-presidential debate in New York on Thursday.

Mr Biden, whose laid-back style is better suited to charming a room, faces Paul Ryan, a maverick congressman with a fearsome reputation for burying debate opponents under a blizzard of budgetary statistics.

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