DENVER—Mitt Romney received a hero’s welcome Thursday at a surprise appearance at CPAC Colorado after a debate showing that supporters declared had changed the dynamic of the presidential race.
“After last night’s debate, the only thing you can come away saying is, ‘It’s game on, baby,’” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican.
“What I saw last night is what I think a lot of Americans saw, I think probably what all of you saw, was a candidate, Mitt Romney, who had answers and another candidate, President Obama, who made excuses.”
Meanwhile, Obama engaged in damage control at a chilly Thursday morning rally at Sloan’s Lake Park here, telling the crowd that Romney had been less than forthcoming during the debate at the University of Denver about his positions on hot-button issues.
Four of Romney’s five sons made a scheduled appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference at Crowne Plaza Denver International Airport. Oldest brother Tagg Romney apologized on behalf of Ben Romney, the only brother who was unable to attend the event.
“Our brother Ben couldn’t be here today, he’s a doctor, so we got another member of the family to fill in,” said Tagg Romney as his father appeared at the back of the stage.
Members of the stunned crowd roared and leaped to their feet, cheering and taking photos as Romney delivered brief remarks about what he called the president’s policy of “trickle-down government.”
“If we continue down his path, there’s no question that the middle-class, which the vice-president noted has been buried, will continue to be buried,” said Romney. “They have higher and higher expenses for gasoline, for food, for utilities, for health insurance. If I’m elected instead . . . we’re going to have rising incomes in America because we’re going to have more jobs.”
“That’s a very different path than one with trickle-down government,” Romney said.
The conference was a regional version of the American Conservative Union’s well-known annual CPAC event in Washington, D.C. This year, the ACU has held three such conferences, the first two in Orlando and Chicago.
The Denver event drew 1,600 registered participants for an all-star Republican line-up that included Thune, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis. The one-day conference also featured break-out sessions on issues such as entitlements, energy, the women’s vote and religious freedom.
Also featured were a number of notable Coloradans, including Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Rep. Cory Gardner, Independence Institute president John Caldara, and Rep. Doug Lamborn, who had the misfortune to appear on the program after Romney.
“I’m just glad you didn’t give me a hard act to follow,” deadpanned Lamborn.
For all the policy issues under discussion, the theme running throughout the conference was Romney’s strong debate performance and the president’s apparent unease with the debate format.
“What a difference 90 minutes without a teleprompter makes,” said Davis, a former co-chair of Obama’s 2008 campaign before switching his party affiliation. “No teleprompter, just two men and their thoughts.”
Several speakers recounted their favorite debate moments, which inevitably involved Romney on the offensive or Obama on the defensive.
“Mitt Romney won on every point you can win a debate on, but the most telling was not what he did, but what the president was doing,” said Rubio. “He was uncomfortable talking about taxes, he was uncomfortable talking about the debt. At one startling moment, he turns to the moderator and says, ‘Can we change the subject?’”
At the same time, the conference wasn’t a complete lovefest. Myron Ebell, energy director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, took to task Colorado Republican Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton for supporting the renewal of the wind-energy production tax credit, which Lamborn opposes.
“If we’re going to change Washington, we can’t tolerate that from our own people,” said Ebell.
Even so, few conservatives could stay in a bad mood after Wednesday’s debate. Several speakers commented on the crestfallen response from the commentators on MSNBC-TV.
“Let me tell you, there were some long faces in that media filing center,” said Guy Benson, political director of Townhall.com. “The only focus group I needed was the cast of characters on MSNBC, which was beyond unhinged. Chris Matthews [had] a very special moment last night, his hair flapping in the breeze, nearly in tears.”
Gardner recapped some of the best post-debate Twitter traffic. “One of my favorites that I saw last night after the debate was, ‘What was that big thump in the middle of the debate, besides David Axelrod fainting?’” said Gardner, referring to Obama’s campaign manager.
“My tweet was something to the effect of, ‘Clint Eastwood’s empty chair could have done a better job last night.’”