DENVER — Exultant Republicans celebrated Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance Thursday as a badly needed turn of fortune, saying he had rescued his presidential campaign and offered new hope to GOP candidates up and down the ballot. President Barack Obama attacked his rival, in essence, as a fraud.
A buoyant Romney paid a surprise visit to a gathering of conservatives in Denver, just before flying to the swing state of Virginia.
He said the debate had presented Americans with a distinct choice: between “larger and larger, more and more intrusive” government and “freedom, hope and opportunity.”
Just a few miles away, Obama tore into his rival with a passion notably lacking Wednesday night on the University of Denver stage.
“It couldn’t have been the real Mitt Romney” at the debate, Obama said at a chilly outdoor rally, “because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. But the fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.” The president later headed to Wisconsin, where he largely repeated the charge.
The big question of whether the debate — with a viewership of more than 67 million — shifted the momentum from Obama and turned the race back to a neck-and-neck contest will be unclear for at least several more days. Polls taken immediately after an event like Wednesday night’s tend to overstate the impact, and perceptions can shift as clips of the debate are replayed and the claims and counterclaims are weighed against the facts.
The fundamentals of the contest — a larger and better-funded Obama campaign operation and a sizable Democratic advantage among women and Latino voters, among other things — were not transformed overnight.
But, at the least, his showing in the debate gave the GOP nominee a badly needed jolt of momentum and offered a reason for undecided and still-persuadable voters to take a more favorable look at the ex-Massachusetts governor.
“Let’s face it,” said Dick Wadhams, a past chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, “Romney was on the verge of losing this race before the debate, but he more than rose to the occasion.”
Chastened Obama advisers tacitly acknowledged as much by saying that the president — whose performance was perceived by many as alternately listless and long-winded — would do things differently when the candidates meet again Oct. 16. David Axelrod, the president’s chief campaign strategist, said Obama went into the debate hoping to avoid trading insults with Romney.
But, Axelrod added, the president would not allow Romney to “manhandle the truth” — an assertion reflected in a new campaign ad that challenged the trustworthiness of the GOP nominee.
Among other things, Romney during the debate minimized the impact his tax and spending plans would have on middle-class and poorer Americans and avoided detailing aspects of his health care plan that polls have found Americans do not support.
“What we learned is that he’ll say anything,” Axelrod said of Romney. “That makes him effective in the short term, but vulnerable in the long run.”
For his part, Obama did little Wednesday night to explain to recession-weary Americans how things would be better in a second term, or any different. He let many of Romney’s assertions go unchallenged and, in his closing statement, seemed more apologetic about the last few years than animated about the next four.
The reaction among many of Obama’s liberal supporters ranged from anger to disgust. At one point during the debate, comedian Bill Maher, who contributed $1 million to a committee supporting the president, gibed on Twitter, “i can’t believe i’m saying this, but Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.”
The sense of relief among Republicans was almost palpable, from an elated Romney staff to down-ballot candidates no longer so wary of the party’s standard-bearer.
“The biggest thing Romney accomplished is that detractors and undecided voters could see him as a credible, sincere leader, a man they could envision being president of the United States,” said Steve Deace, an influential conservative Iowa talk radio host, who has long been critical of Romney.
Ever since the Democratic convention, not just the GOP nominee but Republican candidates for the House and Senate saw a distinct move on the part of voters toward Obama and the Democrats, a shift hastened by the release of Romney’s secretly recorded disparagement of “the 47 percent” of Americans who didn’t pay federal income taxes in 2011.
At the very least, that movement is likely to temporarily cease, said Charlie Cook, an independent election handicapper.
Whether the tide turns in Romney’s direction depends on the candidate and his campaign, Cook said: “They should have long ago started defining him as a more empathetic, three-dimensional figure. Romney put them back in the game, but will they capitalize after failing to do so up to now?”
The answer was uncertain Thursday.
The Romney who appeared on the debate stage struck a far more moderate stance than the one who has spent the last several years running for president, a clear effort to reach out to independent, less-ideological swing voters. He touted his Massachusetts health care plan — which is anathema to conservatives — spoke of his ability to work across partisan lines, endorsed “green” energy and said government regulation was indispensable.
“I do think folks are overreacting,” said Tim Burke, a Cincinnati attorney and the longtime chairman of the Democratic Party in Ohio’s Hamilton County. “Some of our folks thought last night would be the end of this campaign, that Obama would destroy Romney, that we’d all take the next month off.”
While he expressed confidence the president would win Ohio and, with it, the White House, Burke was among those who “wish Obama would have been a little more aggressive.”
He was, however, not too concerned.
“I think we will see a tougher Obama in the second and third debates,” Burke said.
Kathleen Hennessey in Denver, Christi Parsons in Washington and Maeve Reston in Fishersville, Va., contributed to this report.