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Romney energizes GOP base with debate showdown

Tea party hails candidate for staying course

FISHERSVILLE, Va. — Far from running to the political middle, Republican nominee Mitt Romney used this week's first presidential debate to embrace exactly the same kinds of spending cuts he talked about throughout the GOP primary, including backing trims that House Republicans tried to push through Congress last year.

He mentioned the 10th Amendment — a favorite of the tea party movement — and vowed to ax funding for PBS, and throughout his debate performance he gave the firmest evidence yet that he will not "Etch A Sketch" away his primary stances, but rather stick with the message that helped him compete and triumph over the most conservative Republican primary field in history.

"Last night, Gov. Romney said he'd tackle the deficit, cut waste, and grow the economy through private enterprise — without raising taxes," said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. "It goes to show: When a candidate stands up for the Tea Party Patriots' core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets, they win the debate, win the pundits and win the American people."

Indeed, Republicans across the board were energized by Mr. Romney's debate performance. Local party offices reported a run on Romney campaign signs and buttons.

And as Mr. Romney's plane taxied to the runway to leave Denver, one of his pilots came on the intercom and said the airport tower had commended Mr. Romney for his debate performance.

"We're No. 1 for takeoff," the pilot announced.

The candidate himself was in good spirits, laughing with his aides on the plane, and later in the day bounding onto the stage in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for an evening rally with one of the larger crowds of his campaign.

More than 5,000 filled a field, and hundreds more who couldn't get into the event settled on a hill outside a security fence to wait for Mr. Romney and music by country singer Trace Adkins.

"Last night was an important night for the country," Mr. Romney said — and then had to pause to let the wave of cheers subside. "I got the chance to ask the president questions that people across the county have wanted to ask him, such as, 'Why is it he pushed Obamacare at a time when we have 23 million people out of work?' I asked, 'Why is it the middle class is still buried in this country?'"

Standing on stage with President Obama on Wednesday night, Mr. Romney sounded many of the themes of limited-government tea party philosophy, and pointed specifically to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He said he wants to cut and combine government agencies, cull the federal workforce through attrition and go after high-profile spending such as public broadcasting.

"I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too," he said to debate moderator and longtime PBS newsman Jim Lehrer. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things, to borrow money from China to pay for it."

Speaking at a rally in Denver on Thursday, Mr. Obama derided Mr. Romney's stances. "Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird," he said. "It's about time. We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit. But that's what we heard last night. How about that?"

Someone in the audience shouted out, "And Elmo!"

"Elmo, too?" the president replied.

Voters sympathetic to the tea party overwhelmingly support Mr. Romney, but Mr. Obama has made some headway among them, according to the latest The Washington Times/Zogby Poll, released this week. That survey showed Mr. Obama winning 16 percent among tea party sympathizers, up from 10 percent in an August poll.

Mr. Romney did not fully adhere to tea party ideology during the debate. He said at one point that his goal is not to starve the government.

"I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the revenues going to the government," he said. "My No. 1 principle is there'll be no tax cut that adds to the deficit."

Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, said Mr. Romney made some headway in Wednesday's debate by being aggressive and touching on key themes. But he said the Republican nominee still has some hurdles to clear before he closes the deal.

"Most tea party voters are OMG voters: Obama Must Go," Mr. Phillips said. "OMG voters will go out and push the button for Romney. Romney voters will go out with signs, work the polls, etc. The debate last night helped him, but he has not mentioned the tea party once."

Mr. Phillips said Mr. Romney needs to have "a Reagan moment" in one of the debates where he says government is not the solution to problems, but rather is the problem.

Funding for PBS, and its sister radio network NPR, have been targets of conservatives for years.

During a major spending fight last year that kicked off Republicans' newfound control of the House, the GOP passed amendments to defund all of public broadcasting — but those efforts were blocked by Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats, who refused to sign off on those trims.

At the Colorado Conservative Political Action Conference, held in Denver on Thursday, Mr. Romney's full-throated defense of cutting PBS was the consensus highlight of the debate for members of the panel "The Next Generation of Conservatives."

"That tells me how bold of a candidate Mitt Romney is," said Alex Shriver, president of the College Republican National Committee. "That tells me what kind of a president Mitt Romney will be when he's elected in 33 days."

• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report from Denver.

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