The president went on to say the nation faces tough problems that defy simple solutions and said his own choices were "benefiting middle-class families all across the country."
Romney maintained it was Obama who was crushing the middle class and getting the numbers wrong, telling him, "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts."
The two candidates planted themselves behind wooden lecterns and faced off before about a crowd of fewer than 1,000 people at the University of Denver. But their policy-heavy debate really was aimed at the tens of millions of television viewers who tuned in, particularly those who are undecided or soft in their support for a candidate. Just the sort of voters who may be less partisan and more interested in hearing specifics.
Karl Amelchenko, an Obama supporter who watched the debate at a store-front art gallery in Raleigh, N.C., thought Romney did himself some good.
"I think he won, unfortunately," Amelchenko said. "I think he might change some minds."
But some voters still aren't ready to commit one way or the other.
Cynthia Gerst, a state worker in Ohio who attended a nonpartisan debate watch party in downtown Columbus, confessed she's "been under a rock, but now I'm ready" to pay attention. She leans Democratic, but hasn't made up her mind.
"I couldn't distinguish who was in the right," she said after the debate.
Axelrod said on NBC's "Today" show Thursday that the former Massachusetts governor had "big gaps in truth that we saw" and said that Obama will set the record straight. He charged that Romney "refused to offer any way to pay" for the broad-ranging tax cut he advocated.
"I give him credit for a strong performance. I give him an F for being honest with the American people," Axelrod said.
Ed Gillespie, a top aide to Romney, said what people saw in the debate was a presidential challenger "who had a command of the facts."
"He had a very fact-based critique of Obama's policies," Gillespie said on NBC, adding that "we didn't hear very much, frankly, from President Obama about a second-term agenda."
Both candidates came into the debate with distinct missions, and largely achieved them: Romney needed to project leadership and dispel the image of an out-of-touch elitist. Obama needed to avoid making any major mistakes and press the case that he still has more to offer.
The GOP nominee began his charm offensive from the outset, offering 20th wedding anniversary wishes to the Obamas and joking that the debate hall was quite the romantic setting. Then he quickly segued to the campaign's central issue — jobs — and called it "a very tender topic."
Obama sketched out his familiar agenda of improving schools, expanding energy sources, increasing tax fairness and paying down the debt, then made a simple but all-encompassing promise: "All of this is possible."
Each candidate wielded studies and experts to buttress his arguments, and each hauled out anecdotes about ordinary people to connect with voters. Romney spoke of the woman in Ohio who grabbed his arm and told him she's been out of work since May. Obama recalled the teacher he met in Las Vegas who had students sitting on the floor and using 10-year-old textbooks.
Biden and Ryan were probably two of the most attentive viewers: Their own debate is up next, on Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky. Their rival rehearsals, with stand-ins for their opponents, already are well under way.
Obama and Romney go back at it on Oct. 16, in a town hall-style format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Their final faceoff, on foreign affairs, is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Steve Peoples in Washington, Allen Breed in Raleigh, N.C., Julie Pace in Denver and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.
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