TODAY   |  October 04, 2012

First debate highlights: Can one night change the race?

In a fiercely substantive first debate, Mitt Romney performed as if his campaign may have depended on it while a surprisingly subdued President Obama seemed to allow his challenger to dictate the terms of the discussion. NBC’s Chuck Todd reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> to begin with chuck todd , chief white house correspondent in denver this morning. chuck, good morning to you.

>> reporter: well, good morning, savannah. look, this may have been the most substantive debate in the television era. and mitt romney dealt with it as if his campaign depended on it while a subdued president obama let romney dictate the terms of the debate. not exactly the gift the president was looking for on his 20th wedding anniversary .

>> and so i just want to wish, sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.

>> reporter: from the very beginning, mitt romney displayed a confident and commanding presence on stage, almost one-upping the president from the start.

>> congratulations to you, mr. president, on your anniversary. i'm sure this was the most romantic place you can imagine here with me.

>> that set the tone as romney seemed to control the tempo, sometimes even serving as the moderator.

>> let's get back to medicare.

>> reporter: and it didn't take long for the deep philosophical disagreements to come through. first on taxes.

>> now, governor romney 's proposal that he's been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. and he is saying that he is going to pay for by closing loopholes and deductions. the problem is he's been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes and he hasn't been able to identify them.

>> virtually everything he said about my tax plan is inaccurate. if the tax plan he described, i would say absolutely not. i'm not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut . what i've said is i won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit.

>> for 18 months he's been running on this tax plan. and now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big bold idea is never mind.

>> let me repeat what i said. i'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut , that's not my plan.

>> reporter: another stark difference, medicare, one of the few times the president played aggressor.

>> it's called premium support, but it's understood to be a voucher program.

>> and you don't support that?

>> i don't. and let me explain why.

>> again, that's for future people, not current retirees.

>> so if you're 54 or 55, you might want to listen because this, this will affect you.

>> reporter: still, romney seemed to control many of the back and forths, even the lighter moments.

>> i apologize, mr. president, i use that term with all respect.

>> i like it.

>> good.

>> the difference in their debate demeanors was most evident during the closing statements.

>> you know, four years ago we were going through a major crisis. and yet, my faith and confidence in the american future is undiminished.

>> this is an important election, and i'm concerned about america. i'm concerned about the direction america has been taking over the last four years.

>> 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 that governor romney thinks i've kept. but i also promised i'd fight every single day on behalf of the american people .

>> you can look at the record. there's no question in my mind that if the president were to be reelected you'll see a middle class squeeze with incomes going down and prices going up. i'll get incomes up again.

>> reporter: busy day on the campaign trail, the president does rallies here in denver, then flies to madison, wisconsin for a big rally this afternoon. mitt romney , nothing here, but flies to virginia and has a rally with his running mate paul ryan .

>> chuck todd , thank you. david