MORRISON — When Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney stepped to the front of the stage at Red Rocks on Tuesday night, he paused for a long moment, put his hand over his heart and gazed up at the crowd as it rained down cheers and clattered together campaign-themed Thundersticks in a deafening roar, a contented smile growing on his face.
“Look at the handiwork of our Creator,” he said over the din. “It’s just overwhelming.”
Just two weeks before the election, a confident Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, appeared at the iconic amphitheater for one of the GOP campaign’s largest rallies yet as polls show a dead-even race between Romney and President Barack Obama for Colorado’s nine electoral votes.
After asking the crowd if they’d watched the presidential debate the night before — from the sound of things, most had — Romney said that the debates “have supercharged our campaign. We’re on the home stretch now and I think the people of Colorado are going to get us all the way there. What do you think?” he asked, getting a raucous assent in reply.
“What you’re seeing across this country as we’ve had these debates and as Paul and I have gone across the nation, you’re seeing this movement growing,” he said. “You’re seeing people coming together to say, ‘You know, we love America, I think we can do better.’”
The Romney campaign reported that some 12,000 overflowed the amphitheater, which has a capacity of 9,450, and that many more tried to get in but were turned away at the gate. The campaign said it distributed 26,000 tickets to the event. Obama drew a slightly larger crowd — law enforcement officials counted 12,300 bodies — to Denver’s Sloan’s Lake Park on the morning after the first presidential debate and was set to return to Denver for a rally at City Park on Wednesday.
It’s no accident that the presidential candidates are focusing attention on Colorado in the campaign’s waning days. Analysts say the state could prove crucial to either side racking up the necessary 270 electoral votes as the field of competitive states narrows. NBC’s Chuck Todd even pegged Colorado “the Rodney Dangerfield of presidential states” on Wednesday, describing a scenario where the state — won by Obama by 9 points in 2008 — would be the one whose voters decide the election.
An estimated 12,000 fill the seats at Red Rocks for a rally in support of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on Oct. 23 in Morrison. The campaign handed out red, yellow and white T-shirts to supporters in order to recreate a portion of the Colorado flag in the stands.
Romney underscored the state’s role, telling the crowd to return their mail ballots and to take advantage of early voting, which started on Monday.
He also took some swings at Obama, accusing the Democrat of running a trivial campaign, intent on maintaining a “status quo” that he said can’t be defended.
“Look at the Obama campaign — it’s reduced to talking about smaller and smaller things. They’re talking about saving characters on Sesame Street, they’re talking about silly word games. Day in and day out, there’s one attack after another, and attacks on us — that does not make an agenda for the future,” he said.
An Obama campaign spokeswoman swung back after the Red Rocks rally had broken up.
“The Mitt Romney we saw tonight in Colorado was dour, defensive, and dishonest — and it’s no surprise why,” said Lis Smith in a statement. “Last night, he was exposed as reckless and wrong on foreign policy and failed to present any specific plans for what he’d do as President. If he’s hoping that voters will buy his Romnesia on everything from his support for keeping our troops bogged down in endless wars to his plan to raise middle class taxes to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, he’s sorely mistaken.”
Another Romney opponent dished up some mockery at the Republican ticket’s choice of venue, calling it “nothing short of an act of hypocrisy for Romney to hold a rally at this treasured Colorado landmark.”
The amphitheater, owned by the City of Denver and built in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, stood for the opposite of everything Romney has said on the campaign trail, charged Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado.
“Today, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Republican Party would call Red Rocks Amphitheatre a ‘boondoggle,’ a product of Roosevelt’s ‘failed stimulus.’” Schwartz said in a statement. “Indeed, Republicans said as much in 1936 when construction of Red Rocks Amphitheatre began, putting hundreds of unemployed Colorado citizens back to work. In addition to providing an income to hundreds of Colorado families during the Great Depression, Red Rocks Amphitheatre stands as a symbol of what we can accomplish together — even when times are tough.”
Before the GOP presidential ticket delivered their speeches, the crowd was serenaded by country star Rodney Atkins — introduced by Rockies first baseman Todd Helton — and singer Kid Rock, whose “Born Free” song regularly plays at the conclusion of Romney rallies. (He played a live version during his set and later the recording blared out over the rocks as the crowd made its way to the exits.)
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez teed up Romney and Ryan. Declaring that Romney had clearly won the previous night’s debate, she said, “President Obama rattled off a cute joke last night about defense planning not being the game of Battleship. Well, Mr. President, our budget isn’t a game of Monopoly, either.”
Martinez sounded a constant theme of the Romney campaign, seeking to woo former Obama supporters by telling them it’s OK if they’re disappointed in the president.
“You know it, and I know it. The hope, change and bipartisanship that was promised doesn’t exist in Washington. We’ve been left with gridlock, division and a real concern about the future of our families,” she said, adding, “Attacking Mitt Romney is not an agenda. And four more years like the last four years is not a solution.”
“President Obama’s not a bad man — he loves his country and he clearly loves his family,” she said as a chorus of boos and groans arose in the crowd, though at least a few voices could be heard chiding the naysayers. “But we have to face the facts — his policies have let us down at a time when we so badly need to be lifted up,” Martinez continued.
“That many people coming together brought tears to my eyes,” said Castle Rock resident Gay Stout. “Republicans are joyous people to be around, so it’s a fun crowd, and you can’t beat the venue. There is no better venue,” she said just as Kid Rock opened his acoustic set with a cover version of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Leona Bennet, who made the drive from Centennial, said it was the first political rally she and her husband had ever attended.
“I want Romney to take our country back,” she said, adding that the size and enthusiasm of the crowd was likely to bode well for Romney’s chances in Colorado. Looking up at the sloping seats, packed densely with Romney supporters, she added, “It sure looks like it, doesn’t it?”
Denver County Republican chair Wendy Warner agreed, though she noted that she’s been seeing indications of unexpected support for Romney for a while.
“We live in Denver County, and I have never seen so many signs for a Republican before. You go to places like Park Hill, and they’ve got Romney signs up, and in many, many areas, there’s far more Romney signs than Obama signs. There’s just a feeling of momentum, you can feel it continuing to build here,” she said.
The energy of that night’s crowd — under a moonlit sky in a setting she described as magical — only further persuaded her that Romney was on the verge of winning.
“It was like seeing the president and vice president of the United States,” she said. “And I think I just did.”