GRAND JUNCTION — Enthusiastic Mesa County Republicans crowded into the old gym at Central High School Tuesday morning to hear presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney — the man party activists had spurned at their February caucuses.
“He’s not Obama,” said Doug Thompson, who had supported Rick Santorum in the presidential preference poll during caucuses. “Supporting Romney won’t be a problem. In November, Obama loses.”
To loud applause, Romney lashed at President Barack Obama’s call the day before to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone except those with taxable incomes over $250,000 a year, claiming that for “small businesses and job creators, it’s a massive tax increase.”
“This president is an old liberal. He has failed and his policies have not worked,” Romney said.
The former Bain Capital chief executive also attacked Obama on outsourcing, labeling the president the “outsourcer-in-chief,” and said the administration had sent money to solar and wind energy companies who made some components outside the United States.
In a quick response statement, Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Romney “just doesn’t get it. The American people deserve a president who will fight to create jobs here in America, not the outsourcer-in-chief Mitt Romney promises to be.”
The crowd of 850, which was capped by the fire marshal, leaving about 200 people outside the building, cheered on their feet when Romney called for boosting energy development and repealing the health care reforms known as Obamacare.
Romney, who went on to a quick stop at a food bank in Colorado Springs to help assemble care packages for firefighters and people who lost their homes in the Waldo Canyon fire, made just one reference to the massive fires that swept through the state.
He said they caused “devastation and destruction” to many lives, and he singled out for an introduction a 15-year-old Cedaredge teenager, JD TenNapel, who suffered burns when he got on his four-wheeler and drove through advancing flames to warn neighbors of a wildfire. The blaze was quickly controlled last month with no injuries other than to the boy.
Romney talked of “my vision” of why he is running and what he would do if elected.
• “Taking advantage of our energy — our oil, our gas, our coal, renewables,” as he was interrupted by a standing, cheering ovation;
• Expanding trade opportunities for American business;
• “Get rid of Obamacare,” answered with another loud ovation;
• “Making sure our kids have good schools” and attacking “union bosses whose interests have been in front of our kids”;
• Restore economic freedom.
Romney took about a half-dozen questions from the audience, questioners apparently selected by campaign staff who circulated with microphones.
One man said Romney should pick Rep. Alan West, R-Fla., a noted Tea Partier, as his vice presidential candidate, and Romney thanked him for his suggestion. Another man said much of the equipment used by the American military is foreign made, and suggested requiring American products would add “a couple of million jobs.”
Romney replied that America “makes the best products in the world. I believe in competition and if our policies are right and regulations are cut down,’” such a problem would be solved.
One questioner wasn’t part of the Republican crowd: a young man who said he agreed with Romney’s talk of individual liberty and then asked his opinion of liberty for women and gays. Romney opposes gay marriage and abortion rights.
Some in the crowd gasped, but Romney smoothly answered, “I believe in liberty. We may have our differences.”
He cited abortion as an issue where “well-meaning people disagree. We should show respect to others, but these decisions should be decided by the people, not by a one-vote Supreme Court.”
Afterward, Caleb Ferganchick, 18, said Romney’s response was “a politician’s answer. You can’t vote on civil rights. That’s not liberty.”
“I went to the rally expecting what I got,” he said.
Ferganchick, who said he is gay, grew up in Delta and said he was moving to Grand Junction for school at Colorado Mesa University and a petition job regarding campaign finance reform.
His reception in the Republican crowd was “not confrontational” after he asked his question, he said, “other than a guy behind me who said, ‘what a stupid f—-ing question.’ But a guy in front of me shook my hand,” Ferganchick said.
He said he respects Romney’s economic views, but he’ll vote for Obama.
Not so for Gary Bailey of Grand Junction, who waited for Romney with his grandson Josiah, who’s almost two.
“I came to show support,” said Bailey, a lease manager at a trucking firm. “Romney’s got my vote.”
Josiah lasted most of the way through Romney’s 46 minutes on stage before he burst into tears and Bailey took him outside.
Romney last visited Grand Junction in early February, just before the caucuses, in an appearance where supporters didn’t fill a large meeting room at a hotel. His campaign took no chances Tuesday, opting to use the smaller of Central High’s two gyms.
The small, or old, gym, has a capacity of 1,050 people, compared with the new, larger gym that holds 1,750, said Mesa County Valley School District 51 spokeswoman Christy McGee.
Obama last came to Grand Junction in August of 2009 for a town hall — also at Central High — on health care. Democrats filled the large gym to capacity and several hundred others listened outside.
The relative lack of enthusiasm for Romney in February was borne out a few days later when Colorado Republicans went for Rick Santorum in their presidential caucus polls, with Santorum getting 40.2 percent of the vote to Romney’s 34.9 percent.
In Mesa County, Santorum got 47 percent of Republican caucus votes to Romney’s 36 percent.
Romney’s quick trip to Colorado Springs later Tuesday was his first to the Front Range as the presumptive nominee. He’s been in Fort Lupton and Craig, as well as Grand Junction, but still has stayed away from Denver’s vote-rich suburbs.
Former State Rep. Matt Smith, R-Grand Junction, said he believed “Romney is here to shore up the base. Santorum had good support here, and clearly Colorado is a very important state.”
About 200 yards from the high school, an estimated 60 Democrats rallied for Obama and Martelle Daniels, the immediate past Mesa County Democratic chairwoman, said a number of cars went by the intersection honking and their drivers giving the demonstrators a thumbs-up.
“I was surprised at the tepid attitude of the Republicans who attended this,” Daniels said. “When Obama came here, Democrats filled all the parking lots and the Republicans didn’t. We filled the large gym and they didn’t even try.”