DENVER (AP) -- In a showdown at close quarters, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney sparred aggressively in their first campaign debate Wednesday night over taxes, deficits and steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering economy.
Obama accused his rival of seeking to "double down on the top-down policies" that led to a devastating economic downturn four years ago.
But Romney, standing a few feet away on the debate stage, said at one point: "The status quo isn't going to cut it."
That was a reference to the weak economy and 8.1 percent national unemployment that is by far the dominant issue in the race for the White House. Public opinion polls show Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally, and Romney was particularly aggressive in the debate's early going, like a man looking to shake up a campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.
Polite but pointed, the two men agreed about little if anything.
Obama said his opponent's plan to reduce all tax rates by 20 percent would cost $5 trillion and benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle income taxpayers.
Shot back Romney: "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate."
The former Massachusetts governor and businessman added that Obama's proposal to allow the expiration of tax cuts on upper-level income would mean tax increases on small businesses that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands.
The two campaign rivals clasped hands and smiled as they strode onto the debate stage at the University of Denver, then waved to the audience before taking their places behind identical lecterns.
There was a quick moment of laughter, when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama as "sweetie" and noted it was their 20th anniversary.
Romney added best wishes, and said to the first couple, "I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me."
Both candidates' wives were in the audience.
The two men debated before a television audience likely to be counted in the tens of millions. They will meet twice more this month, and their running mates once, but in past election years, viewership has sometimes fallen off after the first encounter.
Without saying so, the two rivals quickly got to the crux of their race - Romney's eagerness to turn the contest into a referendum on the past four years while the incumbent desires for voters to choose between his plan for the next four years and the one his rival backs.
Romney ticked off the dreary economic facts of life - a sharp spike in food stamps, economic growth "lower this year than last" and "23 million people out of work or stropped looking for work."
But Obama criticized Romney's prescriptions and his refusal to raise taxes and said, "if you take such an unbalanced approach then that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education ... health care for seniors in nursing homes (and) for kids with disabilities."