With a 13-day break before their next debate, Obama and Romney have time to hone their arguments while their campaigns continue to bombard the most hotly contested states with negative ads that go far beyond the more restrained jibes the candidates leveled from their respective podiums. Obama made no mention, for example, of Romney's caught-on-tape remark that he's not worried about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Democratic ads, though, have been making hay with the comment.
Asked why the president didn't raise the video, Axelrod suggested on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he didn't need to since it has been so widely seen and heard. "The president's belief is that's something that has been very much a part of the discussion," Axelrod said.
In next few weeks, Romney is expected to give a number of policy speeches filling in details as he tries to sharpen the contrast with Obama while answering criticism that he hasn't clearly outlined his plans. The Republican challenger begins with a foreign policy speech in Virginia on Monday. Subsequent speeches are expected to focus on his plans for job creation, debt and spending.
Romney has promised to balance the budget in eight years to 10 years, but hasn't explained how he'll do it. Instead, he's promised a set of principles, some of which — like increasing Pentagon spending and restoring more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicare over the coming decade — work against that goal. He also has said he will not consider tax increases.
Obama argued that it's all too much.
"At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good?" he said. "Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them? No."
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.
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.
Next up on the debate stage are Biden and Ryan, who meet Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky., for their lone campaign debate.
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, devoted to foreign affairs, is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nancy Benac 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. Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/nbenac. Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie
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