Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

With Election Day approaching, local Democrats and Republicans watched intently Wednesday as President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney faced off in the first presidential debate.

The two candidates sparred aggressively over taxes, deficits and strong steps needed to create jobs in a sputtering national economy. Area residents offered mixed reaction to both the candidates.

"I think both of them expressed their viewpoints very well," said Max Kernaghan.

Kernaghan watched the debate with about a dozen other people at the Tuolumne County Republican headquarters in downtown Sonora. He described himself as a "partisan conservative" and said he wants a candidate who recognizes constitutional restrictions of the government.

"Should the federal government run everybody's life? I don't concur with that," he said.

Romney was obviously the popular candidate at the Republican headquarters, and Kathy Davis was among the supporters. Davis said she felt Romney "did well," though she also said she "was hoping he would have a little more fire in his belly" during the debate.

"I think that's coming," Davis said.

The economy dominated the evening, as it has the race for the White House all year. Pre-debate opinion polls showed Obama with a slight advantage in key battleground states and nationally.

With early voting already under way in dozens of states, Romney was particularly aggressive in the 90-minute event that drew a television audience estimated in the tens of millions - a man looking to shake up the campaign with a little less than five weeks to run.

"The status quo is not going to cut it," declared the challenger.

Obama in turn accused his rival of seeking to "double down" on economic policies that actually led to the devastating national downturn four years ago - and of evasiveness when it came to prescriptions for tax changes, health care, Wall Street regulation and more.

While local Democrats did not hold an organized viewing party, many took in the debate on their own.

Sharon Marovich, chairwoman of the Tuolumne County Democratic Central Committee, listened to the debate on the radio and said she thought Obama "came off very well" in expressing his accomplishment so far and his plans for the next four years.

Marovich said that while Romney was "very critical" of the president's policies, she didn't think he outlined how he would accomplish any of his goals.

"It's one thing to criticize someone, but it's another thing to have an answer and a way forward," she said.

Marovich also said she would have liked to see more discussion on the environment, global warming and energy policies.

"I really think that's a major issue in the 21st century," she said

Diane Doddridge, a member of the Democratic committee, said she watched the debate at home. After the broadcast was over, Doddridge said she would have liked to see Obama be "more forceful" with his message and his criticism of Romney's proposals.

Romney, she said, "doesn't care about the middle class," and thought the president should have called out his opponent more clearly when Romney stated his policies would help the middle class.

"I would have liked to see a little bit more emotion," she said.

The two men debate twice more this month, but they were first going their separate ways today. Obama had campaign stops in Colorado and Madison, Wis., while Romney was booked into Virginia. All three states are among the nine battlegrounds likely to settle the race.

At times the debate turned into rapid-fire charges and retorts that drew on dense facts and figures that were difficult to follow. The men argued over oil industry subsidies, federal spending as a percentage of the GDP, Medicare cuts, taxes and small businesses and the size of the federal deficit and how it grew.

Obama sometimes seemed somewhat professorial. Romney was more assertive and didn't hesitate to interrupt the president or moderator Jim Lehrer.

Romney did manage to make some points by personalizing his comments with recollections of people he said he had met on the campaign trail. In a folksy reference, Romney told Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS even though "I love Big Bird."

Generally 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."

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 stopped 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."

Not surprisingly, the two men disagreed over Medicare, a flash point since Romney placed Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan on his ticket.

The president repeatedly described Romney's plan as a "voucher program" that would raise out-of-pocket costs on seniors.

He continued, directly addressing the voters at home: "If you're 54 or 55 you might want to listen because this will affect you."

Romney said he doesn't support any changes for current retirees or those close to retirement.

"If you're 60 or 60 and older you don't need to listen further," he said, but he contended that fundamental changes are needed to prevent the system from becoming insolvent as millions of baby boom generation Americans become eligible.

Romney also made a detailed case for repealing Obamacare, the name attached to the health care plan that Obama pushed through Congress in 2010.

"It has killed jobs," Romney said, and argued that the best approach is to "do what we did in my state."

Though he didn't say so, when he was governor, Massachusetts passed legislation that required residents to purchase coverage - the so-called individual mandate that conservatives and he oppose on a national level.

Romney also said that Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare over the next decade.

The president said the changes were part of a plan to lengthen the program's life, and he added that AARP, the seniors lobby, supports it.

With a two-minute closing statement, Obama said he had spent his first four years in office fighting for those in the middle class and those seeking to make it there. "If you'll vote for me, I'll fight just as hard in my second term," he said

Romney was as critical of Obama's tenure as he was the moment the two men walked onto the stage.

If the president is re-elected, he predicted continued economic trouble for the middle class, chronic unemployment, higher costs for health insurance and "dramatic cuts to the military."

Obama took office in the shadow of an economic crisis but promised a turnaround that hasn't materialized. Economic growth has been sluggish throughout his term, with unemployment above 8 percent since before he took office.

The 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. Both men have already begun holding practice sessions.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.