The first debate gave voters some of the substance and civility they've been clamoring for, but left a few of the key facts muddled.
After a relentless barrage of negative TV ads, robo calls and breathless pitches from shadowy Super PACs, the American people finally got Wednesday night what they’ve been clamoring for: a civil, substantive debate about issues that matter.
And the two men at center stage – President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – deserve credit. They debated, explained and parsed their policies and differences in ways both civil and informative.
They also fudged the truth from time to time.
But the electorate inevitably is better off for the download in Denver. They also have a stronger sense of the defining issues both men intend to take with them into the final stretch of the election.
For Romney, a single 15-member board, created by the universal health care law everyone now refers to as Obamacare, embodies what he believes is wrong with the recent expansion of government.
The Independent Payment Advisory Board, as it is formally known, is charged with looking for savings in health coverage areas. And you can expect Romney to cite it repeatedly down the stretch as an example of a government take-over of decisions best left to individuals and their doctors.
Obamacare "puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have. I don't like that idea," Romney said.
Rest assured, government’s role in health care, financial regulation and job creation will remain atop Romney’s list of issues as the two candidates meet for two more debates before the Nov. 6 election.
For Obama’s part, voters will almost certainly hear - again and again - that his Republican challenger has offered solutions with no specifics, suggesting the GOP candidate is too secretive and vague about how he plans to bring about change. In another words, to quote a once-famous commercial, where’s the beef?
"At some point the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they're going to be too good? Because middle class families benefit too much? No," Obama remarked Wednesday night.
So the debate gave us a map of some of the emerging battle lines of the final weeks of the election. It also showcased the vast differences in economic policies between the two candidates.
But it was not without fault.
While both men avoided egregious infractions of the truth, they did manage to fudge some of the facts to their advantage.
For instance, the president boasted he’s “proposed a specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan.”
But in truth, much of those savings aren’t really fully his own doing. He’s banking on more than $2 trillion from legislation enacted along with Republicans last year that cut agency operating budgets and capped them for 10 years. He also claims more than $800 billion in war savings that would occur anyway.
Obama's own budget for 2013 offered proposals that would cut deficits over the coming decade by $2 trillion instead of $4 trillion. Of that deficit reduction, tax increases accounted for $1.6 trillion. He promises relatively small spending cuts of $597 billion from big federal benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Romney’s reference to the health care payment board also stretches the facts by suggesting it will dictate coverage decisions.
In fact, the panel of experts would have the power to force Medicare cuts if costs rise beyond certain levels and if Congress fails to act. But the law explicitly prohibits the board from rationing care, shifting costs to retirees, restricting benefits, or raising the Medicare eligibility age. So the board doesn't have the power to dictate to doctors what treatments they can prescribe.
Furthermore, the board has yet to be named, and its members would ultimately have to be confirmed by the Senate. Health care inflation has been modest in the last few years, so cuts would be unlikely for most of the rest of this decade, The Associated Press notes.
Obama also gets flagged for his repeated allegation that Romney’s economic plan would enact $5 trillion in tax cuts.
Obama’s math seems to calculate Romney's tax plan over 10 years but doesn't take into account his rival's entire approach. Romney proposes to reduce income tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax. The Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group, estimates such an approach would reduce federal tax revenues by $465 billion in 2015, which would add up to about $5 trillion over 10 years.
However, Romney says he wants to pay for the tax cuts by reducing or eliminating tax credits, deductions and exemptions. He even offered Wednesday night for the first time to cut oil tax breaks if the corporate tax rate was lowered to 25 percent, showcasing one possible offset.
Obama's point in citing the $5 trillion figure is that Romney won't be able to find enough offsets to make it revenue neutral without harming the middle class.
Romney also obscured his facts on joblessness, claiming 23 million are “out of work or stop[ped] looking for work.”
The actual number of unemployed is about half that, according to the Labor Department - about 12.8 million at the end of July.
The 23 million figure, a favorite of Republicans, actually includes 8.2 million who are employed in part-time jobs but say they are seeking full-time work, and another 2.5 million who say they would like a job and would take one, but haven’t sought one in the last four weeks, some because of discouragement and some because of medical or transportation problems, according to FactCheck.org.