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Editorial: Romney wins on style, Obama on facts

President Barack ObamRepublican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after their debate Wednesday night Denver.  |  SAUL LOEB~AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after their debate Wednesday night in Denver. | SAUL LOEB~AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:28AM

Mitt Romney came loaded for bear. Barack Obama found himself on the defensive.

If you score Wednesday’s debate largely on the basis of which candidate for president exuded a rambunctious energy, it was Gov. Romney all the way.

For 90 minutes, he rattled off facts — more about that in a moment — proposals and scolding criticisms. And while he struck a confident gaze when the president was talking, Obama in turn had an unfortunate way of looking down while nodding his head. We saw a lot of his gray hair.

If, however, you score Wednesday’s debate on substance — accurate facts and honest arithmetic — Obama more than held his own. He drove home the false promises and dangerous ramifications of Romney’s proposed tax cuts, which would surely raise taxes for the middle class by eliminating breaks, such as the home mortgage deduction, and require the elimination of essential programs, such as student loan subsidies.

“I believe Gov. Romney genuinely cares about education,” Obama said. “But when he says [students] should borrow from their parents to go, many . . . just don’t have that option.”

The president was especially strong in picking apart Romney’s ill-conceived plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program, which independent analysts say would leave elderly Americans down the road at the mercy of private insurance companies. Maybe those vouchers would cover the bill, but quite likely they would not over time, even as traditional fee-for-service Medicare would wither away.

When Romney emphasized, as he often does, that his Medicare plan would not affect benefits for Americans pushing 60 or older, Obama looked straight into the camera and caustically said: “If you are 54 or 55, you might want to listen.”

Romney looked good, even sounded good, but was as bereft of specifics as he has been for the last 18 months. He said he would replace Obamacare, but he did not lay out his plan. He said he would end deductions and loopholes without hurting the middle class, but he would not say what those cuts would be. He said he would replace the Dodd-Frank regulations of Wall Street, but he had no specifics.

“Part of being a leader is being able to describe what you’ll do, not just say, ‘We’ll sit down’” with the other side, Obama said.

This much also was clear from Wednesday’s debate: Both Romney and Obama are enthusiastic cheerleaders for American free enterprise.

We couldn’t spot a pinko in the room.

The former venture capitalist and the former community organizer simply have profoundly different notions about how well that free enterprise system is working and what’s to be done to make it work better.

For Romney, the solution to our nation’s economic troubles is to unleash the power of the free market by lowering taxes across the board and easing regulations on Wall Street and Main Street. Get out of the way, Uncle Sam. “The private market and individual responsibility always work best,” Romney said in discussing health-care reform.

For President Obama, the solution lies in recognizing that America’s free enterprise system is terrific in concept but half-broken in practice, rigged to favor a fortunate few. Government’s job, the president believes, is to level the playing field of capitalism so that real merit, not the luck of birth or insider connections, is commensurately rewarded. More Americans deserve a shot at the top.

For Obama, that means higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and preserving a host of federal programs serving the aspiring poor and middle class, such as student loans.

“The genius of America is the free enterprise system,” Obama said. “But as Abraham Lincoln said, there are also some things we do better” collectively.

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