Analysis: Denver presidential debate might explore candidates' fundamental divide

Susan Page

USA Today

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

To reduce the federal deficit, Obama backs what he calls a "balanced" mix of spending cuts and tax hikes on the most affluent. Romney promises a dramatic cut in federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, from 23 percent today. He would slash discretionary and some entitlement spending, though he says he would protect defense spending and programs for retirees and near-retirees.

To sustain Medicare, Romney would give future retirees a fixed subsidy to buy health care coverage through the traditional Medicare program or from private insurers. He would reduce benefits for the most affluent. Obama, who attacks Romney's proposal as a risky "voucher" plan, has said he would consider changes to Medicare as part of a broader deficit-reduction package but hasn't provided details.

To provide access to health care, Obama defends the overhaul he signed into law, emphasizing popular provisions that have helped children with pre-existing conditions and young adults. Romney vows to sign waivers to the law and repeal it, saying states should have more room to innovate and experiment.

And on taxes, Romney wants to extend the Bush tax cuts, cut individual rates by another 20 percent across the board and reduce the corporate tax to 25 percent from 35 percent. He says he would limit some deductions but hasn't provided details of how his plan would add up. Obama would extend the Bush tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000 a year, end them for the most affluent and impose a new tax on people making $1 million or more a year.

The first debate is likely to be the best opportunity of the election to explore these issues. The second presidential debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, is a town-hall format. The third, at Lynn College in Florida, is focused on foreign policy.

Before the debate began, not everyone was convinced that serious discussion would happen.

"Debates have the potential for that" but it is rarely fulfilled, acknowledges Gary Bauer, a Republican presidential contender in 2000 who now heads the conservative group American Values. "The two almost end up having simultaneous press conferences," he says.

"There's the real possibility of substance breaking out in this debate, but I wouldn't bet on it," says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "My sense is that they would revert to talking points to drive messages that are poll-tested, because that's what you do in debate prep. ... But who knows? I hope to be wrong."

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