PBS's Jim Lehrer moderated the debate, which included a more open format that encouraged a free-flowing discussion, and most of the night was spent on the economy, deficit and health care. The debate was generally civil throughout and proved to be one of the most substantive and detailed in recent memory.
The weak economy has long been Obama's biggest obstacle to reelection. On Wednesday night he argued that, while the country may still face problems, America has begun "to fight our way back," thanks to his policies and the resilience of the American people.
"Over the last 30 months, we've seen five million jobs in the private sector created. The auto industry has come roaring back. And housing has begun to rise. But we all know that we've still got a lot of work to do. And so the question here tonight is not where we've been, but where we're going."
But Romney said the status quo "is not going to cut it" for struggling families. "Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They're just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax. It's been crushing."
Through much of the early part of the debate, Romney sought to portray himself as a protector of the middle class, not the wealthy. He said he would not raise taxes on middle-class families and said he would not reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans.
Obama, however, charged that Romney's tax plan would do just that. He said Romney favors a $5 trillion tax cut and argued that eliminating loopholes and deductions for the wealthiest would not provide enough revenue to avoid enlarging the deficit. He said Romney would either have to cut into middle class benefits or cut spending on programs vital to the country's well being.