I’ll be live blogging here, and my colleague Brian Lowry will have his thoughts here.
Before it all starts, here’s what I believe is the biggest gaffe ever made in a general election debate — Gerald Ford’s insistence that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, which he repeated even after panelist Max Frankel asked him if that is what he really meant. It was a baffling contention, one that cost him votes and played right into the Chevy Chase caricature, then in full swing, on the nascent “Saturday Night Live.” They spoofed the moment in their first memorable swing at debate satire.
5:54 p.m.: Jim Lehrer, the moderator, has asked for “absolute silence” from the audience, which already makes this debate different from the primary debates, when you didn’t know what to expect.
6:02 p.m.: Important to note that Lehrer selected the questions, so the buck stops with him. “The hall here has promised to remain silent,” he emphasizes.
6:03 p.m.: Obama makes a reference to his anniversary, calls Michelle “Sweetie.” This was very expected, as it was referenced several times in the build up that this was the date.
6:06 p.m.: Both candidates are pivoting to looking directly at the camera. Where Obama summarizes a lot of his campaign points, Romney is starting his with quick stories about people he has met on the campaign trail, including one who said, “Can you help us?'” “I will restore the vitality to get America working again.”
6:12 p.m.: I have to say that Romney already has benefited by being on the stage with Obama. He sounds vigorous and energetic where Obama is a bit nervous.
6:16 p.m.: Right now, Obama’s answer on taxes is on the point — but very wonkish. The risk seems to be that he is falling in to a real debate with Romney over taxes when his opponent is so far stronger in conveying a vision.
6:21 p.m.: Obama: “Donald Trump is a small business. I know Donald Trump doesnt want to consider himself a small anything.” Was this the first zinger.
6:25 p.m.: Obama tries to get out of the weeds in characterizing Romney’s tax plan. “Math, common sense and our history shows that is not a recipe for job growth.” But he is certainly not dazzling.
6:27 p.m.: The one benefit for the Obama campaign may be that 10 minutes is being spent on Romney’s plan, not Obama’s record.
6:28 p.m.: Romney apologizes to Obama for saying he’d repeal Obamacare, and he says he would cut PBS, which merits another apology to the moderator. “Sorry, Jim. I love PBS. I love Big Bird. I like you.” But he says the country can’t afford it.
6:33 p.m.: “The economy is still going slow. As a matter of fact, it is going slower now than when you made that statement.” Romney is making a case for why the current rate of growth is not good enough.
6:36 p.m.: If there is a strategy from the Obama side, it seems to be that they have a plan all figured out, while Romney is fuzzy with the details. I am not sure if it is coming across, though.
6:38 p.m.: Romney’s rebuttal to Obama’s attack on his plan is point by point, conveying a sense he does know the details. He challenges Obama’s contention that there is a tax break for shipping jobs overseas. “I may need a new accountant,” he says.
6:42 p.m.: Romney is trying to gain ground on Medicare, where he has been vulnerable because of Paul Ryan’s voucher plan. But he insists there will be no changes to Medicare or Social Security. Again, he claims that Obama will cut $716 billion from Medicare to make sure it can fund Obamacare.
6:44 p.m.: Medicare is a central attack point from Democrats, as Romney supports a voucher program. Obama is trying to explain he doesn’t think “vouchers are the right way to go.” He is slightly better on this, but not great.
6:50 p.m.: After Obama has referenced the org, AARP has put out a message assuring that it has not endorsed a candidate.
6:51 p.m.: “Regulation is essential.” I can’t imagine Romney saying this during the primaries.
6:52 p.m.: Romney said that he would “repeal and replace” Dodd-Frank, which is a contrast to what he said as recently at the GOP convention, when it was just to replace it.
6:56 p.m.: Obama: “In the past, he has said he just wants to repeal Dodd Frank, roll it back.”
6:57 p.m.: Now Romney says that the big problem in Dodd Frank was that it designated five banks “too big to fail.” “Sometimes they didn’t come out with a clear regulation.”
6:58 p.m.: Obamacare on the line. Romney attacks it as adding thousands for each families fori insurance costs. He’s clear in what he doesn’t like about it, even if it resembles on his own plan. But his big attack is that Obama spent time working on healthcare that could have been spent working on jobs.
7:00 p.m.: There is a word that is floating around in this debate: Fluent, as in Romney is coming across as more fluent on the issues even if you don’t agree with him.
7:60 p.m.: Romney: “I think something this big, this important, has to be done on a bipartisan basis.” Obama comes back by pointing out that this was a bipartisan idea, one that comes from Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts . “We used the same advisers, the same plan.”
7:12 p.m.: I have to wonder whether Romney has really benefited from the tangle that he had during the primary debates. Given that this is such a staid forum — genteel as PBS, to be exact — he is coming across as the vigorous one.
7:20 p.m.: “We know that the path we are taking is not working.” Romney is making an argument on the role of government, but making himself much more of a moderate when it comes to what is working and what is not working.
7:24 p.m.: Just when I thought there were no zingers. Romney: “You are entitled to your own airplane, and your own house, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
7:30 p.m. The verdict: This was Romney’s debate. Obama was off his mark, even more so than in the three debates he had with John McCain. The first debate favors the challenger, but this definitely gave Romney an opening and he took it. Obama seemed unhearsed, tentative and sometimes just not clear. Romney seemed more in command of the facts, and for a campaign that has been criticized for not having details, he came across as having them, even if that meant sacrificing Big Bird.