Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
DENVER – Before the candidates even finished talking Wednesday night, the debate about the debate had begun.
In living rooms, on television and on the Internet, people were declaring a winner in the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, with most pundits saying Romney looked more comfortable and natural than Obama.
The spin war started in earnest just seconds after the debate ended, in a gymnasium at the University of Denver that had been converted into a newsroom for a few thousand journalists.
Romney’s team charged in, with staffers holding big red signs bearing the name of a nationally known surrogate – Rudolph Giuliani, Reince Preibus, Orrin Hatch and others – who would declare victory for Romney.
“Mitt was completely in charge of the facts,” said Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah. “Look, the man is a brilliant man. He’s successful. He’s exactly what this country needs.”
Obama’s team took longer to file into “spin alley,” and his five surrogates were outnumbered by about 20 Republicans.
The president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, conceded that Romney looked good Wednesday night.
“Romney was always going to have a good night on style points,” Messina said, but added that the Republican was short on specifics for his plans.
Reporters with notebooks and television cameras crushed around the surrogates so closely that it was nearly impossible to even walk across the floor. Their words went out not just around the country, but to television viewers in South America, Europe and Asia.
So went the spin war, the initial battle to convince national journalists of the winners and losers in the contest.
The effort is likely to continue for several more days.
Both candidates made campaign stops in Denver on Thursday – Romney to capitalize on his momentum and Obama to reclaim the initiative.
Romney made a surprise appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference and drew thunderous applause from the crowd.
“Last night I thought was a great opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country,” Romney said. “We have two very different courses for America, trickle-down government or prosperity through freedom.”
By Thursday morning, the Obama camp had crystallized its response – that Romney was faking the moderate positions he took during Wednesday night’s debate.
“He apparently has remade himself,” said former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who helped introduce Obama at a rally in a Denver park. “I call him the new Mitt Romney, the new Etch-a-Sketch candidate.”
Obama himself was reading from the same script.
“When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Obama said. “But it couldn’t have been Romney because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts paid to the wealthy. The fellow on stage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
The skirmish over Romney’s tax plan consumed several minutes in the debate. Obama four times called it a $5 trillion tax cut – a number he gets by adding the value of Romney’s tax cuts through 10 years.
But Romney said his plan would not cost anything because he would pay for it by eliminating tax breaks for top earners. Obama repeatedly said that would be impossible, and he signaled Thursday that he wouldn’t let up on the topic.
The next debate, Oct. 16, will have a mix of questions about foreign and domestic topics. Romney shifted quickly to prepare, and he planned to deliver a foreign-policy address in Virginia on Monday.