"He knows full well that we don't want what he's been selling for the last year," Obama told supporters gathered on a brisk autumn morning in Denver's Sloan's Lake Park. "Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth."
Romney ignited loud sustained cheers when he surprised a gathering of Colorado's Conservative Political Action Conference by appearing unannounced the morning after a debate he said was "an opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country."
"I saw the president's vision as trickle-down government and I don't think that's what America believes in," Romney said. "I see instead a prosperity that comes through freedom."
Standing toe-to-toe with the president for the first time in the campaign, Romney held his own and more at a time when there already were signs that the race is tightening in some of the battleground states where Obama has enjoyed an advantage.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod also sought to turn the questions about the debate into a matter of character, repeatedly accusing Romney in a conference call with reporters of "hiding the truth and the facts" from the American people. But he acknowledged the president learned some lessons and said he would adjust his strategy in the next two debates.
"Obviously moving forward we're going to take a hard look at this and we're going to have to make some judgments as to where to draw the line in these debates and how to use our time," Axelrod said.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg responded to the accusations of dishonesty by saying the Obama camp "offered no defense of the president's first term record or vision for a second term, and instead, offered nothing but false attacks, petulant statements, and lies about Gov. Romney's record."
Both candidates were heading in the coming days to some of the most hotly contested battleground states: Obama was traveling to Wisconsin, then on to Virginia and Ohio. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are off to Virginia, then Romney spends more time in Virginia before moving on to Florida. Vice President Joe Biden is bound for Iowa.
Romney told the exhilarated audience of Colorado conservatives they need to work to get voters who have converted away from Obama to the polls.
"You guys are going to have to cheer here, and then go out and knock on doors, and get people who voted for President Obama to see the light and come join our team," he said. "And if you do that, we'll all be able to come together and have a wonderful inauguration celebration in January. So let's make sure that happens."
Before leaving Colorado, Romney brought in more campaign cash to fund the final push. He went to a mansion on the Cherry Hills Country Club south of Denver, where a Bentley and other luxury cars were lined up for a private breakfast with donors who contributed at least $50,000. Their money will help fund Romney's current advertising gap in the final weeks, putting out messages like the ads his campaign revealed Thursday outlining his job creation plan and accusing Obama's budget deficits of raising the tax burden on Americans.
With a 13-day break before their next debate, Obama and Romney have time to hone their arguments while their campaigns continue to bombard the most hotly contested states with negative ads that go far beyond the more restrained jibes the candidates leveled from their respective podiums. Obama made no mention, for example, of Romney's caught-on-tape remark that he's not worried about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Democratic ads, though, have been making hay with the comment.
Asked why the president didn't raise the video, Axelrod suggested on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he didn't need to since it has been so widely seen and heard. "The president's belief is that's something that has been very much a part of the discussion," Axelrod said.
In next few weeks, Romney is expected to give a number of policy speeches filling in details as he tries to sharpen the contrast with Obama while answering criticism that he hasn't clearly outlined his plans. The Republican challenger begins with a foreign policy speech in Virginia on Monday. Subsequent speeches are expected to focus on his plans for job creation, debt and spending.
Romney has promised to balance the budget in eight years to 10 years, but hasn't explained how he'll do it. Instead, he's promised a set of principles, some of which — like increasing Pentagon spending and restoring more than $700 billion in cuts to Medicare over the coming decade — work against that goal. He also has said he will not consider tax increases.
Obama argued that it's all too much.
"At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Gov. Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good?" he said. "Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them? No."
The president went on to say the nation faces tough problems that defy simple solutions and said his own choices were "benefiting middle-class families all across the country."
Romney maintained it was Obama who was crushing the middle class and getting the numbers wrong, telling him, "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts."
The two candidates planted themselves behind wooden lecterns and faced off before about a crowd of fewer than 1,000 people at the University of Denver. But their policy-heavy debate really was aimed at the tens of millions of television viewers who tuned in, particularly those who are undecided or soft in their support for a candidate. Just the sort of voters who may be less partisan and more interested in hearing specifics.
Ed Gillespie, a top aide to Romney, said what people saw in the debate was a presidential challenger "who had a command of the facts."
"He had a very fact-based critique of Obama's policies," Gillespie said on NBC, adding that "we didn't hear very much, frankly, from President Obama about a second-term agenda."
Both candidates came into the debate with distinct missions, and largely achieved them: Romney needed to project leadership and dispel the image of an out-of-touch elitist. Obama needed to avoid making any major mistakes and press the case that he still has more to offer.
Next up on the debate stage are Biden and Ryan, who meet Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky., for their lone campaign debate.
Obama and Romney go back at it on Oct. 16, in a town hall-style format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Their final faceoff, devoted to foreign affairs, is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nancy Benac and Steve Peoples in Washington, Allen Breed in Raleigh, N.C., Julie Pace in Denver and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.