Denver—A political reporter was likely to be disappointed upon entering the University of Denver’s “DebateFest.” The event, held on the campus quad Wednesday afternoon before Wednesday night’s debate, was advertised as a largely political affair. Instead, one found a sort of yuppie spring fling: a concert stage in one grassy area and an impressive array of high-concept food trucks in another. Tucked off to one side were the largely ignored tables for political activists. Even many of the groups there were unrelated to the campaign. Personhood USA, a national anti–abortion rights group headquartered in Denver, was trying to convince passersby that a fetus was the “thirteenth victim” of the recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings, while progressive anti-poverty groups raised awareness about their general goals. The main electoral activity was voter registration: Voto Latino, NARAL, the University of Denver College Democrats and others offered the opportunity to join the voter rolls. Outside, Kevin Mason, the president of Personhood USA, told me that he is not even voting for Romney. “He’s a lame duck,” says Mason. “He says he’s pro-life but he doesn’t act like it.”
The campaigns focused their energies on rallying small groups of loud supporters, waving signs and chanting unpersuasive slogans like “four more years,” outside the campus perimeter.
Colorado is a crucial swing state, and both campaigns are trying to take full advantage of being here for the debate. Romney held a rally on Monday, followed by one with Ann Romney on Tuesday and Marco Rubio on Wednesday morning. Turnout for Rubio was unimpressive: about 250 people. While the speakers were Latino, and the signs behind the stage said, “Juntos Con Romney,” Latinos appeared to make up a small minority of the audience.
The debate itself provided an opportunity for the candidates to reinforce the attacks on their opponents that they have been repeating over the last few days. After Vice President Joe Biden admitted on Tuesday that “the middle class that has been buried the last four years,” Republicans sought to make it into a major theme of their campaign. Rubio riffed on it at length Wednesday morning. Sure enough, just a few minutes into the debate, Romney said the middle class has been buried. Later, he changed that to “crushed,” and returned to the word several times. (Small business “has been crushed” by the Obama administration, and so on.) Romney also mentioned Solyndra, a Republican obsession on the order of Whitewater, multiple times.
Both campaigns also dispatched teams of surrogates to hold press conferences on Tuesday and spin the media immediately after the debate. At a Democratic press conference in Denver on Tuesday, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs referenced Romney’s insult towards the 47 percent of Americans who have no income tax liability. “Forty-seven,” Gibbs noted, “is also where Massachusetts ranked in job growth out of the fifty states when he was governor.”
Obama failed to explicitly bring up Romney’s comment, but in his discussion of Social Security and Medicare he made what may have been an oblique reference to it. Romney infamously complained that the 47 percent are Obama voters, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”
Throughout the debate Obama tended to explain the complex reasons that Romney’s vague policy promises on taxes and spending are mutually exclusive. But when it came to programs for the elderly, he took a step back and emphasized his underlying philosophical difference with Romney. Obama noted that his grandmother, who worked her whole life and helped to raise him, was dependent on Social Security and Medicare in her old age. “The word ’entitlement‘ implies some dependency on the government. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother,” said Obama. If Obama were a little more aggressive, as he should have been throughout the night, he could have drawn that out and explained that Romney thinks retirees, who make up a significant portion of the 47 percent, are spoiled brats.