Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - Finally, for the first time in this election year, Barack Obama couldn't hide from the economy and the recession his policies have painfully prolonged.

The economic elephant in the presidential debate at the University of Denver couldn't be ignored any longer, as Obama has done for most of the year. It was center stage because Mitt Romany put it there.

Obama's campaign of distraction and irrelevance tried to make the election about anything except the painful jobless rate and chronically feeble economy that has crippled family finances and destroyed dreams of a better life for tens of millions of Americans.

But this time, Obama was forced to confront the ugly reality across the country. And Romney didn't mince words.

"Under the president's policies, middle-income Americans have been buried," he said, borrowing a line from none other than Vice President Joe Biden who this week said "the middle class has been buried" in the last four years.

"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," Romney said.

For the first time in this election, the nation had a chance to compare the former governor with Obama on the pivotal economic issues that are going to decide who will be the next president of the United States. It wasn't even a close match.

Romney was at the top of his game, rattling off statistics about the bleak economy, detailing his five step plan to get the once great American jobs machine running again, and rebutting Obama's litany of patently false charges about his agenda for change.

On Obama's repeated charge that Romney has a $5 trillion tax cut plan that would cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and raise them for the middle class: Romney said he had no such plan, and, indeed, he does not. And Obama could not point to a plan that would do that.

On Obama's oft-repeated charge that Romney's tax reform plan doesn't add up and would worsen the budget deficit: Romney said he would overhaul the tax code by lowering the rates, and broaden the tax base by ending corporate welfare loopholes, special interest exemptions and other deductions, thus making the tax cuts revenue neutral.

To those who say this can't be done, Ronald Reagan did it with the help of two Democratic leaders -- Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley -- in his 1986 reforms that brought the top income tax rate down to 28 percent.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.