- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2012

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.

“If Obama is still elected, we’re going to have a lot of problems starting a small business and also having to pay higher taxes,” Miss Gustafson said. “Obama hasn’t been there for us.”

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.”

Third-party candidates were visible outside the event, albeit not inside. At DebateFest — a campus party featuring live bands, food and politics — students clustered behind a live shoot with MSNBC’s Chris Mathews and held up signs for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

Mr. Johnson wasn’t in Denver for the debate, but his son Erik Johnson, a DU graduate who still lives in Colorado, brought a stack of signs and bumper stickers.

“There’s nobody who’s willing to stand up to the CPD [Commission on Presidential Debates],” Mr. Johnson said. “People are frustrated. The polls say people like to see different opinions. I’d like to see someone talk about gun rights and gay rights in the same sentence.”

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein did come to Denver for debate-related events, including an Occupy the Debates march down Evans Avenue, about a block from the auditorium.

“There is no difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney,” intoned one megaphone-wielding Occupy marcher.

Thousands of students and alumni gathered to watch an outdoor showing of the debates on the big screen, but the event was marred by a blast of cold wind that caused the temperature to drop from the low-80s to the mid-50s in the space of little more than an hour.

The suddenly chilly weather failed to dampen the spirits of Loriann Hinojosa, a DU student who wore an American flag in her hair and a cluster of pro-Obama stickers on her T-shirt.

“This has been really important for the school because it’s getting lots of attention, and Denver’s getting lots of attention,” Miss Hinojosa said. “I’m very excited. I was a little sad that I didn’t get a ticket to the debate, but I’m still having tons of fun seeing all the students and alumni.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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