DENVER (CBSNewYork/AP) – President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney come face to face for the first time in this presidential campaign Wednesday for a nationally televised debate that will give millions of Americans a chance to size up two fierce competitors.
The candidates have spent months preparing for the debate, which will focus on the economy and health care.
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“I’m not interested in creating Democratic jobs or Republican jobs,” Obama said last month. “I’m interesting in creating American jobs.”
“I want to repeal ‘Obamacare’ and replace it with something that will get the costs under control,” Romney said last month.
A pre-debate skirmish Tuesday over Vice President Joe Biden’s passing reference to “a middle class that has been buried the last four years” demonstrated how just a few words can mushroom into something larger during a heated contest for the White House.
“We agree,” GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan declared in Iowa. “That means we need to stop digging by electing Mitt Romney the next president of the United States.”
“In this, the richest country in the history of the world, the Obama recovery has crushed the middle class,” Romney said recently.
Obama’s camp countered that it was the policies of the president’s Republican predecessors that had caused the damage.
“Let’s be clear: the middle class has been buried for a lot longer than the time we’ve been dealing with bad economic decisions from the former administration,” Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said.
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Biden, at a later campaign event, was careful to say that “the middle class was buried by the policies that Romney and Ryan supported,” calling their economic plans an amped-up rework of those from the George W. Bush years.
Meanwhile, conservatives on Tuesday also used a speech Obama delivered as a candidate in 2007 to accuse him of using racially charged rhetoric.
Tuesday night, the website Daily Caller unleashed a video of the speech given by then-senator Obama at Hampton College in Virginia – one laced with fury over the federal government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.
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“Look at what happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit, people asked me if race was the reason the response was so slow. I said, ‘Well no, this administration was color blind in its incompetence,’” Obama said.
But then he went off script.
“What’s happening down in New Orleans? Where’s your dollars?” Obama asked the audience. “Makes no sense. Tells me the bullet hasn’t been taken out. Tells me that somehow the people down in New Orleans, they don’t care about it as much.”
The speech also showcased Obama’s close relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The two broke public ties years ago after Wright made controversial comments about race and religion.
Experts say while it may not be a bombshell, it may remind voters of the controversy heading into the election, where there’s little margin for error with so many undecideds figuring to play a major role in determining a winner.
“One mistake here could be the end of either person because the numbers are that close,” political pundit Hank Sheinkopf told CBS 2′s Marcia Kramer on Wednesday. “If this turns into an hysterical brawl between two grown men on a national stage neither will benefit and the undecideds will go up.”
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Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt quickly dismissed the criticism, accusing “Mitt Romney’s allies” of recirculating video of a widely covered speech in “a transparent attempt to change the subject” from Romney’s comments about 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes.
Obama plans to use the first presidential debate as the hook for fundraisers and recruiting volunteers. Former President Bill Clinton will be in Boston on Wednesday night for Obama, with donors paying $20,000 a person.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is headlining a New York fundraiser.
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The Obama campaign plans more than 4,000 debate-watching events around the country. And Biden is scheduled to hold a live discussion with supporters that will be streamed online after the debate.
The Romney camp planned 336 debate parties at restaurants, bars, grills, VFW halls and other sites concentrated in battleground states.
Romney and Obama debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y. and then Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.
Biden and Ryan have their lone debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.
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