DENVER - Mitt Romney's campaign aimed to pin blame for the struggling economy on President Obama's policies during the first presidential debate here Wednesday, while Obama's campaign was looking to depict the Republican challenger's economic plan as vague and tilted to benefit the wealthy.

Both candidates remained out of sight in intensive preparation sessions before the debate, which was to take place at the University of Denver. The 90-minute event was to focus on domestic issues, with half the time dedicated to the economy.

The campaign surrogates, however, were all over the airwaves and email inboxes working to spin the debate before it even started.

Top Romney aide Kevin Madden said Wednesday that the former Massachusetts governor's primary goal in the debate is to show the electorate a clear choice between his vision for America and Obama's.

"And I think we've summed it up very aptly with the question that we posed to the American public," Madden said on CBS. "Do they want another four years like the last four years?"

It's a question reminiscent of the one asked by then-candidate Ronald Reagan during his breakout debate performance a week before the 1980 election. At that debate in Cleveland, Reagan summarized his entire argument for why people should vote for him over then-President Carter with a single question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Those words, coupled with Carter's own debate gaffes, helped flip Carter's big lead in the polls and propel Reagan to victory.

While today's economic circumstances mirror those faced by Carter more than three decades ago, the Obama administration is far more prepared for the criticism than was the Carter campaign, which hunkered down in the White House instead of hitting the campaign trail in the weeks before the election.

Obama has been campaigning heavily, defending his record to voters and playing down expectations for his performance ahead of the debate.

Early Wednesday, Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, appeared in a video pre-buttal of the debate, outlining the criticisms expected from Romney and calling on him to provide more details of his economic plan.

"So he can either use tonight's debate to give us those details for the first time ever, or he can spend 90 minutes doing what he knows he is good at," Cutter said, "attacking the president, distorting his record and avoiding any and all detail about his plans for the country."

Cutter also defended Obama's record on the economy, telling viewers, "Remember this, Obama inherited a record deficit caused by two wars and two tax cuts that weren't paid for and an historic economic collapse."

She charged Romney's plan would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for a tax cut for the wealthy.

The Romney campaign responded by releasing details of his tax plan and a study by the American Enterprise Institute the concluded the nation's high debt would effectively raise taxes on a typical middle-class family by $4,000 a year.

"President Obama may be fond of claiming Mitt Romney wants to raise taxes on the middle class," a Romney aide said. "But the president is the only candidate in the race threatening to drive up middle-class tax bills."