Presidential campaigns leave mark in Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

For a few days, Colorado lived up to its storied battleground status as Republican presidential candidates criss-crossed the state urging supporters to turn out at Tuesday’s caucuses.

At stake was a confident lead established in recent contests by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, fresh off back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada, and a bid by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to claim the mantle of the strongest conservative alternative to Romney.

Mitt Romney tells supporters at a primary night watch party in Denver that he expects to come in first or second in the presidential straw poll conducted at caucuses. Romney addressed the crowd on the Auraria campus before final results showed rival Rick Santorum winning the Colorado contest, five points ahead of Romney.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

That distinction only recently belonged to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has been undergoing one of its by-now regular slides in the standings. And although Texas Congressman Ron Paul skipped the state during the week before caucuses, it remained to be seen whether his cadre of committed backers could turn out in sufficient numbers to improve on his single-digit support in the 2008 caucuses.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney embraces his son Josh as he takes the stage at a primary night watch party on Feb. 7 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While Paul campaigned elsewhere after attending crowded, rowdy town halls in Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs last Tuesday, his busiest rivals, Romney and Santorum, appeared before thousands of voters at more than a dozen events in Colorado this week. Aiming toward southern contests he contends can revive his lagging campaign, Gingrich spent just a few hours in the state on Monday and didn’t vigorously contest the caucuses.

Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, welcomes state Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, to a rally for presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Auraria student union on Feb. 7 in Denver. Duran said she decided to stop in at the rally, which took place in her house district, after seeing the party on TV. "The room was half full, so it looked like they needed some folks to fill it," she said with a laugh.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Romney, fresh off wins in last Tuesday’s Florida primary and Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, set down just four times in Colorado, a state he carried convincingly four years ago with 60 percent of the vote. At massive rallies in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Centennial and Loveland, Romney delivered quick stump speeches attacking President Barack Obama while ignoring his GOP rivals. By all appearances — including his recently acquired envelope of Secret Service protection — the front-runner had already set his sights on November.

"I believe in America. And so do you,' presidential candidate Mitt Romney tells a crowd assembled in Denver to celebrate a victory that instead went to Rick Santorum on Feb. 7, when Santorum swept contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Colorado results weren’t final when Romney delivered his speech.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

On the night before the caucuses, Arapahoe County GOP mainstay Bo Cottrell introduced prominent Romney backers former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, who proceeded to rev up the crowd of some 3,000 cheering supporters at Arapahoe High School in Centennial. (When the gymnasium filled to its capacity of 2,800, organizers set up an overflow room where at least 200 supporters listened in remotely.)

Romney supporters pack the gymnasium at Arapahoe High School in Centennial on Feb. 6, the eve of the Colorado Republican caucuses.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Noting that he shared something in common with Romney, Beauprez began, “I come from Boulder County, and the governor comes from Massachusetts. There’s a few liberals in both those places,” he said as the crowd booed and moaned. “Let me tell you, when you stare the beast in the face day after day, and you fight against liberalism, and you see the mistakes of liberalism, you get pretty firm in your conviction — you understand who you are and why you believe what you believe!”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez makes a joke about “marrying up” after being introduced by Bo Cottrell, left, and before handing the microphone to former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, at a rally for presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Feb. 6 at Arapahoe High School in Centennial. Brown welcomed Romney to the stage moments later.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The crowd went wild when Romney took the stage to deliver a stinging rebuke of Obama administration policies, perhaps cheering loudest when the candidate said he would endorse construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to bring synthetic oil from Canada to U.S. refineries. Rather than sing “America the Beautiful,” as he has at recent rallies, Romney recited lyrics from some of the song’s more obscure verses and explicated them.

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum signs a tie for Weld County GOP activist Jane Schindler at a Santorum rally on Feb. 6 on the University of Denver campus. A few days earlier in Greeley, Santorum signed a tie he had worn at the start of a speech he delivered at the Weld County Lincoln Day dinner, and Schindler said it later went for $400 at an auction to raise campaign funds. She brought the tie to the Denver event for Santorum to sign intending to auction it off to raise funds for legislative candidate John Sampson.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I know there are a lot of people in this country who feel our best days are past us,” Romney said. “They’re not. Our future’s bright, and America’s back.”

Romney volunteer Jeff Adams said he’d supported Romney in 2008 and was convinced he was the best candidate to take on Obama.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich rallies supporters on the eve of Colorado Republican caucuses at a hotel in Golden on Feb. 6. The presidential campaign, Gingrich said, should be about “really big solutions and really big ideas.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I actually met him four years ago in a small group, and he talked about how you solve problems,” said Adams as he handed out yard signs as the crowd streamed through the school lobby. “You get the smartest people in the room, and you don’t leave until the problem’s solved. I want that kind of discipline in our U.S. government.”

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich poses for a snapshot with his wife, Callista, and Steamboat Springs resident Chelsea Juarez, at the tail end of a Gingrich rally on Feb. 6 in a ballroom at the Marriott Denver West in Golden.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

He gave Romney high marks for both the content and the delivery of his speech. “He’s just honed his message in — he’s been studying this for seven years, he knows what he thinks.”

Romney supporter Julie Best said her candidate was the antidote to the moribund Obama years.

“The issues are that we haven’t seen a lot of change in the last four years,” said Best, who didn’t vote for Obama but maintains she held out hope he would rise to the occasion. “We were promised a lot of things — there were a lot of things said, but not a lot of things done. Romney has a plan that has a shot of actually doing some good.”

Best said she understood the dangers of establishing dependence on the government and had pulled herself up regardless.

“There were a lot of people hit hard the last four years with job loss,” she said. “Some of those people were able to get back on their feet, but some of them haven’t been. Some of the things brought forth by this administration are allowing them to not help themselves. We have ways to help those people that need the help, but it’s the middle road that may not have the focus. I firmly believe if you’re given the tools to help yourself, and you try really hard, you can make it. I did.”

Romney, she predicted, would lead the country out of the current morass. “There’s been a lot of deadlock in Congress, and I can’t say that it’s all just the Democrats, people aren’t working together — and we need to figure out how to break that, it’s like an ice-jam, that can’t be broken, and that’s really frustrating,” she added.

Pausing for a moment outside the school, state House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who endorsed Romney last month, gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the speech he had just witnessed.

“I just came out to see the next president of the United States!” McNulty said with an ear-to-ear grin. “Given his long day, he did a remarkable job. I think he will inspire Americans and really do what his slogan says and believe in Americans again. We’re excited and we’re ready to go!”

Gingrich tells supporters in Golden to focus on ideas, not personalities

In a pair of appearances in Golden, Gingrich rallied a small crowd at a suburban hotel Monday morning and then spoke at a nearby summit on energy policy at the Colorado School of Mines that afternoon. (Santorum also spoke at the Mines event.)

As some 150 people awaited the arrival of Gingrich and his wife, Callista, radio personality Jimmy Lakey took to the stage and pumped up the volume.

Quoting Popeye in full Howard Beale mode, Lakey said he often recalls the cartoon character’s slogan. “When he had reached his limit, and he was up to here with all the nonsense going around, Popeye would say, ‘I’ve had all I can stands and I can’t stands no more!’” Lakey said he’s had it with bailouts, corporate cronyism and the government getting involved in health care, and the crowd clearly agreed.

Gingrich, who has slid in the polls since winning the South Carolina primary last month, prodded his supporters to keep his campaign alive with a strong showing in Colorado, and made a case that he was the right candidate to challenge Obama.

“Gov. Romney doesn’t represent profound change,” Gingrich said. “He’s not a bad person, per se, but he’s also not a person who goes in there with force and will and fundamentally changes things.”

It was up to Republicans to nominate an authentic conservative, Gingrich said, pointing to the GOP’s sad history when it hadn’t.

“We nominated a moderate in 1976, and we lost,” he said. “We nominated a moderate in 1996, and we lost. We nominated a moderate in 2008, and we lost. The elite media would love to talk us into nominating another moderate.”

He also argued it was essential to focus the race on profound ideas, not personalities. “It would be a great disservice to the American people to not have this as a conversation about really big solutions and really big ideas,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome, Gingrich told the crowd, their vigilance was key.

“We need very large changes, and it’s going to be very challenging to get them,” he said. “Because even if we win the debate, even if we win the vote, even if we win the election, they’re going to use lawsuits, picketing — you name it, just watch what’s happening in Wisconsin.”

Following his 20-minute speech, Gingrich took the chance to shake hands and pose for snapshots with nearly everyone in the crowd, though an aide said with asmile that the candidate wouldn’t be taking questions from the assembled press corps, hoping to meet or surpass Romney’s stretch avoiding reporters. (Gingrich briefly spoke with reporters that afternoon at the School of Mines event.)

But his supporters had no qualms talking to reporters.

“I just really believe in his work-for-pay campaign,” said a bubbly Meredith Wallace, a college student at Denver’s Johnson and Wales campus and the reigning Miss Colorado’s National Teenager, who attended the rally fully decked out in her royal garb. Nodding with her bejeweled tiara, she added, “I feel Americans should have to earn a living and shouldn’t be on the food stamps.”

Steamboat Springs resident Chelsea Juarez, who had been staying in Denver to work the campaign’s statewide phone bank since the previous week, said there was no question Gingrich was the right candidate for Republicans.

“It’s because he can hit the ground running from day one — he’s the only candidate who can do that,” she said. “He has the experience and he knows who the players are.”

She predicted success at the caucuses, adding that the response to her phone calls had been tremendous.

“They love Newt,” Juarez said. “They think he’s the only one who can actually debate Barack Obama and win. They believe Romney’s too much like Obama, and there’s a clear contrast between Obama and Newt. We want to go conservative this time — moderate does not work.”

Santorum invokes “civic creed” during 10th event in Colorado

While Romney’s event had all the trappings of a pep rally — down to the high school band ringing out the celebratory tunes — and Gingrich’s talk could have been mistaken for the kind of seminar on innovative investment schemes routinely held in hotel ballrooms, Santorum’s campaign event in Denver later that night evoked nothing so much as an impassioned sermon, albeit delivered in a futuristic house of worship.

Surrounded by a wall of flat-screen televisions repeating his image, along with patriotic eagles and American flags, Santorum floated on a platform suspended above the crowd of several hundred avid supporters at the University of Denver’s Cable Center.

It was the 10th event of 11 he would hold around the state before caucuses — as many as all the other candidates combined — including appearances at a Christian school in Lakewood, a county Lincoln Day dinner in Greeley and a pair of standing-room-only rallies in Colorado Springs.

Imploring spectators to roust friends and neighbors out of their homes and into the next night’s caucuses, Santorum invoked what he termed the nation’s “civic creed,” found in the Declaration of Independence. That document, he proclaimed, contained words “at the heart of what makes us an exceptional country.”

“Americans, whether they’re people of faith or not, accept the fact we are created,” he said. “That fact — that we have this common understanding of what America is about — is a launching point for how we can begin to rebuild consensus in America.” He added that the understanding “that we are a country of God-given rights, not rights from the government, but rights from God,” underlies his message.

He asked the crowd to act on their faith in his campaign’s principles.

“What could be more honorable than to rise at a moment when your country needs you, to protect those fundamental freedoms, to do the work that’s necessary to preserve them?” Santorum said.

After delivering his speech, and shaking hands with more than a hundred supporters, Santorum told reporters he was hopeful about his chances in Colorado.

“This race will work its will, and at some point the race will change again,” he said. “It may be because somebody gets out, it may be because we’re doing well and we’ll continue to do well.

Acknowledging that he was taking aim squarely at Romney, calling him “uniquely unqualified” to take on Obama on the issue of healthcare, Santorum said he planned to stick to a debate on the issues.

“I’m stepping up my rhetoric because I want to be sure we make the right choice,” he said. Asked about that day’s attacks from the Romney campaign, he replied, “They came after me on the issues — all well and good. No problem. For someone who advocated for earmarks when he was governor to criticize me for earmarks is, in many respects, the pot calling the kettle black.”

He predicted his campaign strategy would soon yield some wins.

“This is a very dynamic election, and we feel very good (about) our message, if we get the opportunity to get it out, as we think we have. While they were focused down there in Florida and Nevada, we were out here campaigning in these other states, and I think it’s going to pay off,” Santorum said.

An effusive state Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, said Santorum’s “contemplative, inspiring speech” had accomplished what was required.

“I can tell you that I absolutely love the message he delivers, and he is the candidate of my heart. That I can say,” she said moments after embracing former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who endorsed Santorum during an appearance at Colorado Christian University last week.

While she noted that she wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot for Santorum at caucuses, instead visiting numerous precincts to visit with voters, Conti said he had won her over and had her full support.

“Mr. Tancredo just commented how nicer it would be to feel like you’re voting for someone, instead of against someone,” Conti said. “And I can tell you there’s a lot more people who are for Rick Santorum than are for Mitt Romney. There’s too much water that’s gone under the bridge, there’s too much that’s caused Mitt Romney’s character to come into question. And people feel burned. They trusted Barack Obama and they got burned. So they’re wary. They want to know that they can trust ya, and they’re looking at the record a little bit more than they have in the past.”

Bailey resident Terri Poulson said it was Santorum’s positive message that swayed her to decide to back him over Gingrich, who appeared to be locked in a battle with Romney over which could most successfully tear the other down.

“I’ve been going back and forth between him and Newt. Recently,” she said, “I’ve been listening to what Rick has to say, and it resonates with me and my beliefs. The other two have been going back-and-forth, back-and-forth, bashing each other, and I really don’t like that. And he’s been delivering a very positive message, encouraging faith-based policies, and that just resonates with me as a voter.”

She planned to caucus for Santorum and said, from what she gathered talking with friends and neighbors, that he could prevail in Colorado.

“I think he’s going to win. I hope so,” she said, and then paused to marvel at the prospect. “It could upset things,” she added. “If we get out here and do what we’re supposed to do — and not listen to the press and the establishment saying Romney’s the man — then I think Santorum has a great chance.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com