DENVER — The nation's movement conservatives have not always been Mitt Romney's biggest fans, but activists were downright giddy when the former Massachusetts governor made a surprise drop-in here at the CPAC Colorado gathering the day after his powerful debate showing against President Obama on Wednesday night.
Attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference-Colorado were virtually unanimous in the opinion that Mr. Romney had not only triumphed in the first presidential debate, but won decisively, outdueling President Obama on everything from stage presence to command of the issues.
"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, and that was a candidate, Mitt Romney, who had answers, and another candidate, President Obama, who made excuses."
The crowd went wild when Mr. Romney popped in for the surprise visit, his first public stop since Wednesday night's debate at the University of Denver. He was preceded by four of his five sons, who took the podium at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to apologize for the absence of the fifth brother, Ben Romney.
"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 walked in from behind the stage.
Mr. Romney continued to hammer at the "trickle-down government" theme he sounded the night before, while taking a jab at Vice President Joseph R. Biden's comment earlier this week that "the middle class has been buried for the last four years."
"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 Mr. 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," said Mr. Romney.
The conference is a regional version of the American Conservative Union's vaunted annual event in Washington, D.C. More than 1,600 people attended to hear speakers and break-out sessions on issues such as voter fraud, religious freedom and the women's vote. But the debate -- and its energizing effect on the Romney campaign -- dominated the discussions.
"We deserve to savor this day," said Guy Benson, political director of Townhall.com. "I feel like the media have really tried to demoralize us, and 90 minutes last night changed all that."
Conservatives said Mr. Romney's debate win was exactly what they needed after months of attack ads from the Obama campaign, weeks of flagging polls in some battleground states, and daily declarations from Democrats that the race is all but over.
"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 Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. "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?'"
After the laughter subsided, Mr. Rubio asked, "To what? What are you going to change the subject to? There's a reason he was uncomfortable, and that's because he literally does not understand the American free-enterprise system."
Mr. Obama's reputed reliance on teleprompters during speeches also came in for some ribbing.
Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, a co-chairman of Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign who earlier this year switched his party registration to Republican, drew whoops and cheers when he said, "What a difference 90 minutes without a teleprompter makes. No teleprompter, just two men and their thoughts."
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