Republican Mitt Romney performed strongly on Wednesday in his first presidential debate, putting a more passive Barack Obama on the back foot as he reignited hope in his flagging campaign.
Needing a good showing to turn around poor poll numbers, the former Massachusetts governor went on the offensive from the get-go, hammering the president for economic policies he said had "crushed" America's middle class.
Romney played the aggressor throughout the 90-minute encounter and appeared far more at ease in the cut-and-thrust of the debate format, which left Obama seeming at times nervous and irritated, at others under-prepared.
Obama did jump on Romney's lack of specifics as the rivals clashed on taxes and health care reform, but the president stuttered through several of his more detailed answers, while his Republican opponent was crisper and clearer.
"The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years ago: that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more — if you will trickle-down government — would work," Romney said.
"That's not the right answer for America. I'll restore the vitality that gets America working again," he vowed. "Middle-income families are being crushed, and the question is, how to get them going again."
Obama hit back by suggesting Romney would bring in $5.4-trillion in tax cuts, particularly geared towards the wealthy, and said his Republican foe hadn't been clear on which loopholes in the tax system he would close.
"Governor Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes skewed toward the wealthy and cut back regulations, we'll be better off. I have a different view," the Democratic incumbent said, calling for "economic patriotism."
Romney challenged the truth of Obama's claims as the tax issue sparked what proved fiercest clashes in a low-key televised debate watched live by tens of millions of Americans.
"Virtually everything he said about my tax plan is inaccurate," the challenger said. "If the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I would say absolutely not."
Obama clings to a narrow lead in his bid to defy the omens of a stubbornly sluggish economic recovery and to become only the second Democrat since World War II to win a second term.
Romney, down in almost all the key battleground states that will decide who wins the 270 electoral votes needed to win on 6 November, sought a sharp change of momentum.
"I don't think there's any doubt that Romney won," Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, told AFP.
"He was more aggressive without being pugnacious or provocative or combative. The president seemed a bit flat. He seemed, I wouldn't say annoyed at times, but almost disconnected, almost not comfortable."
The Romney campaign hailed a clear win for their man. "If this was a boxing match, it would have been called an hour into the fight," said top political adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
"Governor Romney is a very eager and willing candidate on the attack," conceded Obama strategist David Axelrod, tongue-in-cheek.
Despite the unrest in the Middle East, this debate focused strictly on economic issues. Foreign policy gets its turn in the final of the three presidential debates at the end of the month.
Romney, a multi-millionaire former venture capitalist, was expected to come under scrutiny over his complex offshore tax arrangements, which Democrats have highlighted to press the case that he is indifferent to middle class struggles.
But Obama did not mention these, nor Bain Capital, the controversial Boston firm that Romney co-founded on his way to amassing his vast wealth, nor the most obvious of recent slip-ups by his gaffe-plagued opponent.
The 65-year-old Romney badly needed to reset the election narrative, after a video emerged of him branding 47 percent of Americans as people who pay no taxes and see themselves as "victims" who depend on government handouts.
The 51-year-old president was marking his 20th wedding anniversary on Wednesday and began the debate with a shout-out to First Lady Michelle Obama, apologizing for the unromantic setting.
"Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me," joked his adversary in a rare moment of levity as the duel began.
Summing up, Romney said a re-elected Obama would usher in an era of falling household incomes and chronic joblessness.
"If the president is re-elected will you see a middle-class squeeze," he said. "You will see chronic unemployment — 43 straight months with unemployment above eight percent."
Obama, who attacked Romney for having no plans — bar failed Republican policies that got the country into trouble in the first place — said he had lived up to his promises and asked US voters to give him another term.
"You know, four years ago, I said that I'm not a perfect man, and I wouldn't be a perfect president, and that's probably a promise Governor Romney probably thinks I've kept," he said.
"I also promised I would fight every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class and all of those striving. I've kept that promise, and if you will vote for me, then I promise I'll fight as hard in a second term."
Several national polls released before the debate showed a tight race, with Obama ahead by a few points. Polls of the key swing states that will decide the election give the president a clearer advantage.