DENVER — With thousands of cheering students, a huge media presence, people dressed as animals and plenty of food, the atmosphere Wednesday at the University of Denver felt more like that of a really big football game than the first presidential debate of the 2012 election.
Except that DU doesn’t have football — it has Division I hockey — and the only hits delivered were of the verbal variety. Then there were the stakes, which most agreed were considerably higher than those surrounding the average conference game.
“I’m here because the future is important to me,” said Mark Usery of Denver, holding a white “Romney-Ryan” sign outside the debate arena.
Mr. Usery was part of a sea of hundreds of sign-wavers supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney lined up on the west side of University Avenue. Across the street were hundreds of President Obama backers, who held up light blue signs with the message, “Forward.”
The two sides warmed up for the debate by shouting campaign slogans at each other. “Four more years” was countered by “Nobama,” while “Go Mitt go” was met by “What do we want? Obama!”
They stopped briefly to cheer when a motorcade whisked by and turned into the parking area for the Ritchie Center, the site of the presidential debate. A man who appeared to be Mr. Romney waved to the crowd, prompting energetic cheering.
Students from a half-dozen Colorado universities converged on the debate site, many coming in on buses sponsored by the College Republicans, College Democrats and the campaigns. The result was a much more youthful atmosphere than that of the average campaign rally, which tend to attract an older crowd.
Joe Hunt, president of the Democratic club at the University of Denver law school, said most students continue to support Mr. Obama, even though he agreed they haven’t been as enthusiastic this year as they were in 2008.
“I haven’t seen the same intensity, but obviously with any incumbent, there’s less support,” Mr. Hunt said.
“Romney just is not offering the right alternative. I think he lacks the personal touch with a lot of voters — they see his views, like his opposition to gay marriage and against choice, as backwards. And young voters are progressive people.”
A rash of pro-Obama signs could be seen hanging from apartment balconies along the university and side streets near the campus.
Chelsea Gustafson and Lindsey Schmalz, both students at Johnson and Wales University, a culinary school, said they back Mr. Romney because, as budding pastry chefs, they want to start their own businesses someday.
Nathaniel Marshall, who rode to the debate with a busload of College Republicans from the Colorado School of Mines, said he and his friends were concerned about potentially heavy cuts to the Defense Department budget as a result of the pending budget sequestration.
“As future professionals, we realize the importance of this election,” Mr. Marshall said. “Our livelihoods are at stake. Sequestration directly affects our future employment.”