During a prime time showdown, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of imposing an "economy tax" on the American people and crushing the middle class with his failed economic policies.
What is an economy tax? Romney said the price of gas, food, health care and energy have skyrocketed under Obama, putting new costs on middle class families that don't show up in the tax code. He also mentioned the weak economy and 8.1 percent national unemployment, which is by far the dominant issue in the race for the White House.
On the other hand, Obama accused his rival of wanting to "double down on the top-down policies" that led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
When responding to Romney's aggressive attacks on his economic record, Obama reiterated that he inherited a horrible economy and was already facing huge deficits when he became president. He blamed former President George W. Bush for expensive wars and programs that were not paid for. Obama also justified his massive spending by saying he had to take "emergency measures to prevent another Great Depression."
However, Romney kept the pressure on, telling Obama "you've been president for four years." He went on to criticize the president for continuing to rack up trillion dollar deficits each year without cutting it in half as he promised, saying that kind of spending is not "morally" right.
"That's not going to get it done," Romney added.
The GOP contender appeared to come into the debate with the goal of turning the contest into a referendum on the past four years, while Obama argued that the country is finally headed in the right direction with him in the Oval Office.
At one point Romney got fed-up with what he perceived as Obama misrepresenting his policies.
"You're entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and your own house, but not to your own facts," Romney quipped.
Watch Romney deliver the zinger here:
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."
At this, Obama said Romney's big idea on taxes was "never mind," insinuating that his rival was flip-flopping on his tax policy.
The two candidates also sparred over "Obamacare," with Romney accusing the president of forcing the health care law down the throats of the American people on a "partisan basis" because it was what he, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid thought was best.
Romney vowed to repeal Obamacare while the president argued that his rival enacted an almost identical health care law while governor in Massachusetts.
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."
The two candidates each discussed what the role of government should be in America. Obama admitted that government can't do everything but that it has an important role to play. Romney said the sole role of government is to protect the principles found in the Constitution, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.
Obama did not address the crisis in the Middle East, but that didn't stop Romney from bringing it up, who said the developments are a "real concern" and the U.S. is in need of "leadership in Washington and someone who can get the job done."
The two campaign rivals began the debate by clasping 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 podiums.
There was a quick moment of laughter before things got serious, when Obama opened by referring 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."
Though analysis will continue throughout the night, CNN's John King said Obama was "rusty" in the debate while another panelist said it was Romney's best debate.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter looked to defend Obama, telling CNN the president "scored points" by focusing on policies and the facts. However, she said Romney won the "style points" and was better prepared in tonight's debate.
Here are some more highlights from tonight's debate:
Romney and Obama discuss the "deficit" problem:
This story may be updated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.