By Tom Cohen, CNN
(CNN) — President Barack Obama called for “economic patriotism” while Republican challenger Mitt Romney said a new path is needed as the candidates launched the first of three presidential debates on Wednesday night.
“America does best when the middle class does best,” Obama said in response to the first question, which centered on job creation. He added that Romney’s plan of tax cuts for the rich failed before.
Romney, however, said Obama pushed the same policies as when he took office four years earlier, and they had failed to bring down high unemployment and get the economy surging again.
“It’s going to take a different path,” Romney said, repeating his five-point plan for growth that has been part of his stump speech.
With polls narrowing less than five weeks before Election Day, Obama and Romney launched a new phase in a bitter race dominated so far by negative advertising as both camps try to frame the election to their advantage.
The candidates sought to take advantage of what is expected to be their largest nationwide audience to date, making arguments for why voters should support them or reject the other guy.
Whether it matters is itself a topic of debate. According to an analysis by Gallup, televised debates have affected the outcome of only two elections in the past half century — Nixon-Kennedy in 1960 and Bush-Gore in 2000.
Both candidates had their wives in the audience at the University of Denver in Colorado for the debate taking place on the 20th wedding anniversary of the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
Obama opened the debate by promising his wife they wouldn’t be celebrating their anniversary next year in front of 40 million people, and Romney joked that Obama found the most romantic place possible for the anniversary.
Analysts say Obama needed a presidential performance rather than fireworks or haymakers in order to maintain and build on a narrow edge in polls that indicate a very close election on November 6.
Romney, who has been unable to catch the president in most of the polls to date, sought to generate enthusiasm for a change in the White House as the nation wrestles with high unemployment, sluggish economic growth and mounting federal deficits and debt.
The former Massachusetts governor has more recent debate experience — he took part in 22 during the grueling GOP primary campaign of 2011-2012 that he ended up winning handily after fending off a litany of conservative contenders.
By contrast, Obama has not faced a debate since the three in 2008 with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, then the Republican presidential contender.
Wednesday’s debate focused on the issue considered by voters to be the most crucial of the election — the economy.
Romney “has to paint a compelling picture of a better economic future and why he can lead us there and President Obama can’t,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. Democratic pollster Peter Hart made a similar point, saying “if Romney loses this issue, then he is toast.”
Jim Lehrer of PBS moderated his 12th presidential debate. He previously announced that the 90-minute event would include three segments on the economy and one each on health care, the role of government, and governing leadership and style. Each segment was scheduled for 15 minutes.
The two candidates shook hands and shared a laugh after being introduced by Lehrer as the audience applauded before being asked to remain silent for the remainder of the debate.
Organizers hoped the segmented format, with candidates given two minutes to answer questions, would allow for a more free-wheeling discussion instead of a series of rehearsed sound bites.
The other presidential debates will occur on October 16 in New York and October 22 in Florida. Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate, will debate on October 11 in Kentucky.
CNN’s John King and Amy Roberts contributed to this report.