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.
On Obama's plan to raise taxes on people who earn over $200,000 a year, Romney shot it down by saying it would further weaken an economy that is barely growing. "The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of [economic] growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time."
On Obama's charge that his challenger will cut education spending that will undermine America's ability to compete in the global economy: As Massachusetts governor, he presided over a state whose schools were ranked No. 1 in the country.
On Romney's energy independence plan, Obama said his opponent would give tax breaks to the oil industry. But Romney struck back, reminding the president that he had plowed more than $90 billion into corporations for green energy projects, nearly a dozen of which went bankrupt -- leaving taxpayers holding the bag.
"That's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives," Romney said. Obama was trying to pick the winners and losers in the economy, but "you picked the losers," he said.
Perhaps Romney's strongest offensive was aimed at Obama's plan to raise the top income tax rate to more than 40 percent. Thousands of small businesses who file their tax returns as individuals would be hurt by this tax which he said would force them to cut up to 700,000 jobs.
That surely struck a chord with small business owners who represent the largest job creator in our economy, not to mention millions of their employees.
When Romney attacked Obamacare, which he said he would repeal, Obama weakly pointed out that it had been based on his plan in Massachusetts. But Romney replied that "we didn't raise taxes as your plan does. We didn't cut Medicare to pay for it."
"You say [Obamacare] won't raise insurance premiums, but they have and they do... and this is why the American people don't want Obamacare."
Obama was meekly forced to admit that "over the past two years health care premiums have gone up."
Romney also used the health care issue to promote his ability to reach across the aisle to get things done, pointing out that Obama failed to do that with Congress. No Republican voted for Obamacare.
"Anything this important has to be done on a bipartisan way. I can reach across the aisle," he said in his strongest bid yet to reach out to independent and swing voters who are fed up with a dysfunctional Congress that can't seem to pass anything to get the country back on the right track.
And so for 90 riveting minutes on nationwide television, seen by an estimated 60 million Americans, the president couldn't make this election about abortion, Romney's bank accounts or how much he pays in taxes. Issues that have nothing to do with the problems facing our country and its economic future.
Instead, it was focused on the issue that Obama dreads most: A bed-ridden economy that has grown increasingly weaker under his inept, anti-investment, anti-growth, anti-job policies.
Throughout the slugfest, Romney landed one punch after another, while Obama seemed to be playing rope-a-dope and was unable to respond with any effective blows.
Body language also worked against Obama. Romney looked directly at him on every point he made, as Obama looked down at the podium, appearing uncomfortable.
"The American people saw the difference between a teacher and student," said former New York major Rudy Giuliani.
Romney was teaching Growth Economics 101 but Obama still doesn't get it.