DENVER -- 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.

The clash took place in the opening moments of a national televised debate before tens of millions of voters with the power to settle the 2012 race for the White House a campaign that polls suggest tilts Obama s way despite lingering high unemployment and only sluggish economic growth.

[Watch the debate with the NBC political team on KING 5 starting at 6:00 p.m. PT]

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 podiums.

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.

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 presidential rivals also are scheduled to debate on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have one debate, Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.

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