Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney came out of the gate charging at the first presidential debate on Wednesday at the University of Denver, his confident swagger in sharp contrast to a plodding performance by President Barack Obama.
Just five weeks until an election both sides expect to come down to the wire, Republicans exulted over what most pundits agreed was a clear win for Romney, who has lagged in key battleground state polls over the last month, though Democrats maintained that Obama got across his message and that voters were unlikely to dock him for “style points.”
For 90 minutes, all eyes — or at least those belonging to the estimated 67 million Americans who watched the debate — were on the stage constructed inside DU’s Ritchie Center, where a hockey rink had been converted to a setting one audience member described as “intimate.” There was seating for just 1,000 inside the debate hall, though thousands more journalists and security personnel took over the rest of the center, spilling out across roadways and lawns.
An elated Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call and his wife, Brittany, take in the scene in the media filing center after sitting in the audience for the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver.
The debate was moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer and was devoted to domestic policy, with half of the questions involving the economy. The candidates will debate two more times later this month, after a debate next week between the vice presidential candidates.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama appear on the giant screens at the University of Denver’s Cable Center during the first presidential debate, held on Oct. 3 inside the nearby Ritchie Center.
Almost from the start, a grim and sometimes dour-looking Obama — his more protective supporters might say he appeared sober and determined — signaled that he might rather be anywhere but on stage with Romney, while Romney seemed to relish the chance to joust with his opponent eye-to-eye.
“There are a lot of points that I want to make tonight, but the most important one is that 20 years ago I became the luckiest man on earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me. And so I just want to wish, sweetie, you happy anniversary and let you know that a year from now, we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people,” Obama said, looking to the first lady, who sat in the front row next to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
After congratulating the Obamas, Romney went swiftly on the attack, relentlessly hammering the president on the economy.
“What we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach, which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams. And it’s not working,” Romney said.
Obama appeared to treat the debate as an even-handed discussion in front of the American people, while Romney approached it as a full-blown competition with the president and seemed determined to prevail.
Although the debate lacked the kind of stumbles, gaffes or punches that have seared previous presidential debates into the national memory, the contrast in demeanor between the candidates — Obama looking down, pursing his lips and taking notes, while an animated Romney kept his eyes forward and flashed a brash smile nearly throughout — quickly resulted in Republicans calling the president “professorial” and Democrats labeling Romney “testy,” at least in the immediate post-debate spin to journalists.
“I think you saw an academic president fail to explain away the past four years of failure, and you saw a business leader, a CEO rise to the occasion and explain to the people of Colorado and the country why he is going to be able to get this economy moving forward better than anybody else,” said U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.
Along with about a dozen other politicians and campaign officials — about twice as many Republicans as Democrats — Gardner roamed after the debate in “spin alley,” a wide clearing at the front of a gymnasium filled with row after row of desks, where most of the 3,000 journalists covering the event were located.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a similar point. “Gov. Romney looked like a teacher, and President Obama, taking notes, looked like a student,” he cackled.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, predictably, had a different take. “The president won the debate,” he told a crowd of skeptical journalists. “If you look at the issues people care deeply about, taxes, jobs, Medicare — on all those, we’re on the right side of those issues and Gov. Romney continues to be on the defense.”
Calling Romney’s performance “testy,” Messina dismissed early assessments by pundits. “The president was calm, he was very specific, he had plans, he talked very specifically about what he was going to do, and that’s what voters have said repeatedly they want to hear,” he said.
Asked why Obama had stayed mostly in his corner, rather than deliver any stinging rebuttals to Romney’s claims, Messina waved his hand. “He had some zingers, but this isn’t about zingers.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, a prominent Romney surrogate in the state, strode among journalists with a triumphant smile.
“I was very taken, certainly, by Mitt Romney’s performance, but it’s what I expected. My surprise tonight wasn’t that Romney did so well, it’s that I thought the president clearly was not on his game. I thought he underperformed badly, from his standpoint, for his team. I thought he rambled, he filibustered, he went on and on and never seemed to be able to get to a point,
and that surprised me,” he said, adding that Romney “knocked it out of the park.”
Nearby, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch piled on. After reminding reporters that Romney supporters point to his experience turning around the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and failing businesses, Hatch said he’d just accomplished the same thing with his campaign.
“I think this is the turnaround right here. He clearly won that debate. I’m not trying to be partisan here — I like the president personally — but, my gosh, the president was on the defensive all night,” he said.
A few feet away, though he wasn’t heralded by one of the upright signs accorded the national politicians, House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver — the debate site is within his redrawn house district — dispensed his own upbeat assessment of Obama’s performance.
“What Gov. Romney talks about is a lot of rhetoric, but he’s not giving details about what his plans are, because I think his plans are not really going to help Colorado and middle class Coloradans move forward,” he said. “President Obama was making his points, trying to be respectful. Gov. Romney was probably the more aggressive of the two, I don’t know how that played on TV. I think they both did a good job.”
His GOP counterpart, House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, also watched the debate live, in the hall, but didn’t have any doubt how it played.
“I think Romney won,” he said. “I was surprised at how much time the president spent on his heels. It seems he wasn’t prepared to answer the question, ‘What are you going to do to reduce unemployment.’ You would think he’d have those answers down, and he didn’t. It’s probably because he doesn’t have an answer. He says, ‘Let’s not focus on the last four years,’ but the fact of the matter is, this president has had four years to improve this economy, and he didn’t.”
McNulty said he was confident that a resurgent Romney campaign would help Republicans up and down the ticket in Colorado, helping the GOP keep its majority in the state House, but DU political science professor Seth Masket cautioned against anticipating too much of a bounce from one debate.
“We know that presidential debates don’t necessarily have a huge effect on voters — at the most, it’s like 2 or 3 points, but we’re in an election where the margin could be considerably less than that, so something that could swing something by that much could be determinative,” he said. “The electorate polarized pretty early in this election, so we’re down to maybe 5 percent who haven’t made up their minds between the candidates. In many ways, the debate is about trying to reach them.”
State Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, sat between Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and a man he described as a “maxed-out Romney Super PAC donor,” which he said made him hopeful that political opponents realize they can get together and hash out their disagreements.
Pabon said he chafed some against Lehrer’s blanket warning that the audience remain silent — except for a few audible gasps or murmurs, they complied. “I was doing a lot of elbowing and nudging on points that were made by both candidates.” He added that he is looking forward to watching the next three debates in settings where he can be more vocal. “I’ll look at it from a completely different angle,” he said.
Then, looking around the teeming media center, as TV cameras crowded South Dakota Sen. John Thune on one side and national GOP chairman Reince Priebus huddled with a reporter over his shoulder, Pabon smiled. “This is the Superbowl of politics. We’re right in the middle of it.”
See Oct. 5, 2012 print edition for full photo coverage.