DENVER (AP) — After dozens of hours of practice, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney arrived in Colorado on Monday for his first debate with President Barack Obama, telling thousands of voters he thinks the debates will be about "something bigger" than just who appears to emerge the winner.
"In my view it's not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves, the president and myself — it's about something bigger than that," Romney told a cheering crowd of thousands.
The Republican's campaign has been counting on the debates with President Barack Obama to set Romney on a path to winning the presidency. Romney spent more than eight days in September holding mock debates, poring over policy briefing books and sparring with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who stood in for Obama.
Romney planned another day of preparation Tuesday at his hotel on the outskirts of Denver, where most of his top advisers and at least a dozen more junior aides milled about in the lobby on Monday night.
They'd just come from the rally, held at a cavernous hangar at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, where Romney tried to enunciate a clearer message than the varying pitches he's made to voters in recent weeks. Though his campaign once talked about nothing but the economy, all the time, he's recently diverged into subjects including wealth distribution, Medicare and foreign policy as he has looked to seize any opportunity to gain ground on the incumbent president.
Romney also brought up immigration in an interview published Tuesday by The Denver Post, saying he would honor temporary work permits for young illegal immigrants who were allowed to stay in the U.S. because of an Obama administration decision.
The message wasn't as muddled by Monday night's rally. J, O, B, S — jobs — was spelled out giant banners posted behind the stage where Romney stood, with supporters perched on stacked risers so they appeared next to the giant letters.
"Jobs is job one under my administration. We're going to get America working again by helping small business," Romney said, debuting a new line midway through his standard campaign speech.
He was introduced — briefly — by former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who took the stage as an AC/DC rock song played and the crowd erupted with cheers. It was Romney's first event with voters since Friday, as he spent the weekend at home in Massachusetts raising money and preparing for the debate.
Romney, whose campaign slogan is "Believe in America," declared his love of country and said the voters who showed up to hear him were demonstrating their own care for the nation.
"I love America. I love the beauty of its rocks and rills and templed hills but a lot more than that I love the beauty of the American soul," Romney said. "The fact that you're here tonight, the fact that you care about an election shows how much we care in America."
Romney spent yet another morning Monday with Portman and top aides at a Boston-area hotel, getting ready for Wednesday night. He boarded his logo-plastered campaign plane in the afternoon, joined by nearly all of his top advisers: strategist Ed Gillespie, longtime aides Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, confidante and former colleague Bob White, and top strategist and admaker Stuart Stevens.
The only adviser to speak formally with reporters on the Monday flight was spokesman Kevin Madden, who downplayed expectations for the first matchup with Obama.
"We do see it, again, as not one event but these next 35-plus days as a larger conversation that we're going to be having with voters that includes debates," Madden said.
Thomas reported from Washington.