With an estimated 60 million Americans watching on TV, cable and the web, Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS got right down to business, firing off the first question to President Obama, who won that right in a coin toss.
The first half of the debate tied together discussion of taxes, economic growth and the mounting national debt. Romney and Obama largely both stuck to arguments they had litigated so far in the campaign. So intense, though, was the focus on these issues that both the president and Romney blew past predetermined time limits for topics and admonitions by moderator Jim Lehrer.
Still, neither seemed to land the kind of signature blow versus the other that would seem to change the arc of the campaign.
Obama opened the debate on a personal note, recognizing his wedding anniversary with first lady Michelle Obama, who was with him in Denver.
Romney also struck a softer note, recounting stories of how voters had approached him and his wife, Ann, at rallies to plead for their assistance.
"The answer is yes, we can help. But it's going to take a different path," he said.
When it came to Medicare and Social Security, there was one agreement.
"Neither the President nor I propose any changes for current retirees or near retirees," Romney said.
When Romney claimed the President weakened the economy by focusing on healthcare, President Obama fired back.
"We did work on this, alongside working on jobs, because this is part of making sure middle-class families are secure in this country," he said.
Now comes the polling to find out if Mitt Romney makes the gains with voters that he needs.