Romney has chips with regular Joes

The Colorado Statesman

Better get used to it, Colorado. Next time diners reach for their guacamole and chips, they might look up to find a presidential candidate shaking hands and talking about the economy. That’s what happened to at least a few hungry Coloradans at the Brewery Bar IV in southeast Aurora on Monday afternoon when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney packed the Mexican restaurant for about an hour of intensive retail campaigning before heading to a pricey fundraiser in a nearby suburb.

Romney’s brief swing through town on Monday marked his first visit to Colorado — considered a crucial battleground state in both the GOP primary and next fall’s presidential election — since he made his candidacy official earlier this month.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney poses for a snapshot with Ali Smith. Smith said she supported Romney in his 2008 run but is taking a look at the field before committing this time.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Romney, who won the 2008 Colorado caucuses with 59 percent support over eventual nominee John McCain’s 19 percent, jabbed President Barack Obama on the economy, spoke with a dozen small business owners about jobs policy, and praised the tasty food during a roughly hour-long stop at the eatery.

“We’re three years in to Obama’s four-year term, and it’s not working,” he told an appreciative crowd of about 200 at the restaurant.

Recalling that Obama won the presidential nomination in Denver nearly three years ago, Romney slammed the administration for its record on the economy.

“When the president was here at the Democratic National Convention he said, ‘We Democrats’ — I am quoting him by the way — ‘We Democrats’ he said, ‘measure success by whether we can get people jobs and they can pay mortgages and they can put a little money away at the end of the week so they can put some money towards their kids’ education,’” Romney said. “Well, on that measure, this president has been a failure for the nation and for Colorado, and he’s going to go because of that.”

Romney took swings at Obama’s record on falling housing prices, foreclosures, and, especially, the unemployment rate, which he said was “at a worse condition now than in the 1930s.” Zeroing in on job-creation, he added, “One of the reasons we want to have someone who’s actually had a job is we know to create jobs it helps to actually have had a job.”

Romney invoked President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to Americans as he wrapped up his remarks to the crowd. “With so many unemployed, with debts in the nation so large, with threats abroad, we need leadership that will tell us the truth, that will lead with integrity, and will point the way to restore the greatness that is America,” he said. “I will do it, with your help, and I’ll keep America the hope of the Earth.”

Asked why he is running against Obama’s health care policies when the president credits Romney’s massive health care overhaul in Massachusetts as inspiration, Romney said what he did as governor was right for his state but wrong for the country. “What works in Massachusetts won’t necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana or Colorado,” he said.

“President Obama took one idea, drastically expanded it, spending a trillion dollars of federal money, and imposed it on all the states,” Romney said. “It’s unconstitutional, it’s bad policy, and, even if it were a perfect plan — which it’s not — we can’t afford a trillion dollars of more federal spending.”

Romney’s answer didn’t satisfy one small business owner who attended the event and asked about health care policy during the roundtable.

Network engineering consultant Nathan Wilkes, a Democrat, maintained that elements of the federal Affordable Care Act — including bans on lifetime payment caps and exclusions by insurance companies for pre-existing conditions — made it possible for him to insure his 7-year-old son, who suffers from what doctors term severe hemophilia. “If those things worked for you in Massachusetts, why do you think they aren’t good enough for Colorado and the other 49 states?” he asked.

Romney said his plan to “replace Obamacare” included safeguards against insurance companies being able to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.

“You need to have regulations that are smart, moderate and up-to-date, and I favor that,” Romney said to Wilkes. “But what I don’t favor is the federal government stepping in and saying we’re going to manage health care for the entire nation, we’re going to tell states we’re going to spend a trillion dollars on Obamacare.”
Wilkes attempted to ask a follow-up question but was drowned out by applause for Romney’s answer from the other small business owners.

After the campaign event, Wilkes told The Colorado Statesman he didn’t think Romney had answered his question. “His response was off topic,” he continued. “The free market won’t fix everything, when it was the free market mechanisms that kicked my son off insurance.”

The federal law includes safeguards he called essential to maintaining coverage for his son Thomas. “It’s important to us because without things like that, we wouldn’t survive, we wouldn’t have insurance, we’d be a lot more broke than we are now,” he said.

It’s not the first time Wilkes has raised health care questions on a national stage. He spoke at a Grand Junction town hall meeting held by Obama during the summer of 2009 when Congress was writing federal health care legislation. He then testified before a congressional committee about the problem of under-insurance. In September 2009, he was an invited guest in the gallery when Obama addressed a joint session of Congress about the health care bill.

“I’ve had the opportunity now to ask those kinds of tough questions to Romney and to Obama and the White House staff,” Wilkes said. “The difference was, the White House said we know there are issues and we’ll try to fix those, but Romney’s response was saying a bunch of stuff without saying anything at all.”

He said he plans to ask similar questions of every presidential candidate who passes through town. “As long as we keep the discussion going instead of political grandstanding and ideological bantering,” he said, “as long as we work together, we can make some progress.”

Following the discussion over chips and salsa with the small business owners — in addition to Wilkes, they included an insurance agent, the owner of a title company and a box manufacturer — Romney told reporters he’ll be paying special attention to Colorado during the campaign.

“At this early stage, it’s hard to know exactly how Colorado will figure into the general election, but I know it figures in a big way into the primary process,” he said. If he survives the earliest primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, he said, Colorado could be key to securing the GOP nod. “Last time, Colorado was very good to me, and I’m hoping Colorado will be good to me again, and that I’ll be able to become the nominee of the Republican Party, in part, thanks to the people of Colorado.”

Presidential campaigns, including Romney’s, are mining the state for political talent in anticipation of the 2012 election. Earlier this year, Romney tapped Parker resident Rich Beeson to serve as his political director, a move mirrored a couple weeks ago when the Obama campaign named Denver resident Katherine Archuleta to the same post in his operation. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann — according to recent polling, Romeny’s chief competitor among Republican primary voters — also has a Colorado politico in her inner circle, former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s one-time chief of staff Guy Short.

Hours before Romney landed in Colorado — following a similar whirlwind trip through Idaho, another key early caucus state — his campaign announced a number of prominent state Republicans who will serve as members of his leadership committee in Colorado. Among the names, a virtual who’s who of Colorado’s GOP establishment, are former U.S. Sens. Hank Brown and Wayne Allard, former Gov. Bill Owens, former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez and his wife, Claudia, and current office-holders Attorney General John Suthers, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and CU Regent At-large Steve Bosley, all of whom backed Romney in 2008.

“I am proud to earn the support of so many well respected Colorado leaders,” Romney said in a statement. “I look forward to working with them during my campaign to promote job creation, balance our exploding budgets, and reverse President Obama’s failed policies.”

Brown had this to say about the candidate he’s backing for the nomination: “Mitt Romney has the proven record to pull our economy out of this downturn. His extraordinary success in both the private and public sectors will help provide the leadership our country needs to restore our economy and the American spirit.”

Romney’s Free & Strong America PAC poured on the largesse in close races last year in Colorado. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics from documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, Romney’s PAC made contributions of $2,500 each to Colorado Republican congressional candidates Ryan Frazier, Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, as well as $5,184 to GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck. Gardner and Tipton upset incumbents in the fall election, while Frazier and Buck lost their bids.

After the old-fashioned politicking at the Brewery Bar, Romney entered a dark SUV bound for a high-dollar fundraiser at the Cherry Hills Village home of Bruce and Debbie Payne. Tickets to the event, which was closed to the press, cost $250-$2,500.

Calling Romney’s policy record “far out of touch with Colorado priorities,” state Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio blasted the candidate’s record as governor in a statement issued on Monday.

“During Romney’s tenure as governor, Massachusetts’ economic performance was one of the worst in the country on all key labor market measures. Under Romney’s watch, Massachusetts not only lagged behind the country as a whole – they even slipped to 47th in job creation,” Palacio said. “Now, Mitt Romney offers to double down on the same flawed policies that led to millions of job losses in 2008.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com