Republican Mitt Romney sought Thursday to use his superior performance at the first presidential debate as a springboard to build momentum for his once beleaguered campaign.
Romney received a rousing standing ovation from nearly 2,000 during a surprise stop Thursday at a conservative gathering, his first appearance following the debate. He later traveled to a boisterous rally in a rural slice of Virginia.
“You guys are going to have to cheer here and then go out and knock on doors and get people who voted for President Obama to see the light and come join our team,” an upbeat, energetic Romney said at a Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Denver.
Obama headlined large outdoor rallies in a pair of swing states as he tried to rebound from a debate performance that drew poor reviews, even by his own supporters, with a new line of attack against Romney.
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“The man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year,” he told 12,000 supporters at a frigid outdoor rally at a Denver park featuring singer will.i.am. “Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth.”
Obama’s campaign acknowledged that his performance at the debate did not compare to Romney’s – which it mocked as “Oscar worthy” – but said that the former Massachusetts governor distorted the facts of his tax plan, his support for teachers and his proposed changes to Medicare. Obama, aides said, would hold Romney accountable in the final month of the campaign.
Dressed casually in khakis and a windbreaker, Obama seemed more at ease Thursday at the rallies as he attacked Romney. In spirited speeches, the president stuck to familiar themes, such as growing the middle class, but he also turned aggressive, telling the audience that Romney touts policies that he can’t pay for or even explain.
“When asked what he would to actually cut spending and reduce the deficit, he said he’d eliminate public television funding,” Obama told an estimated 30,000 supporters packed on Bascom Hill, a long lawn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Let me get this straight, he won’t get rid of regulations on Wall Street but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street?”
Obama was greeted by one of his largest audiences this year in Madison, home of a famously liberal school where his supporters are passionate. Those who conceded his debate performance was lacking attributed that to his day job of running the country. “He probably had a lot on his mind,” said Tara Frey, 41, a teacher in nearby Sauk City.
Romney savored his debate victory after weeks of campaign missteps and bad publicity. It came the same day that Romney, who once supported gun-control measures, received the backing of the National Rifle Association.
Joined by running mate Paul Ryan in Virginia, Romney spoke to supporters in Fishersville, in largely Republican Augusta County, where the state’s foothills served as a backdrop. They were joined by country singer Trace Adkins as well as a blast of fireworks.
“Last night America got to see the man I know. A leader,” said Ryan.
Orange National Rifle Association hats dotted the crowd, estimated at 5,000. Some in the crowd waved NRA-sponsored orange flags that said “Defend Freedom, Defeat Obama.”
Romney, who was immediately interrupted by cheers when he started talking about the debate, said he thinks the president’s answers showed Americans that “he and I stand for something very different.”
“We can’t afford four more years like the last four years,” he said. “What you didn’t hear from the president last night is why the next four years will be better than the last four years.”
Romney accused Obama of planning to raise taxes, part of what he calls “trickle-down government. If the U.S. continues down that path, Romney said in Denver, “there’s no question . . . the middle class will continue to be buried with higher and higher expenses for gasoline, for food, for utilities, for health insurance.”
Instead, he ticked off a list of other ideas: More domestic energy production, more cuts in government spending, fewer defense cuts.
Steve Stump, 66, a buyer for a recycling company in Augusta County, predicted a “big swing” for Romney after the debate.
“I hope there’s a turnaround. I have nothing against Obama, but we need a change,” he said. “Romney’s got stuff going for him.”
David Lightman contributed from Denver. Anita Kumar reported from Denver, William Douglas from Fishersville, Va., and Sean Cockerham from Madison, Wis.