DENVER — An invigorated Mitt Romney basked in rave reviews Thursday after his first face-off with the president, envisioning an inaugural celebration, while President Barack Obama and his allies tried to rebound by vigorously accusing Romney of dishonesty on the debate stage.
Obama told supporters gathered on the brisk autumn morning-after in Denver's Sloan's Lake Park that the Romney who showed up for the debate isn't the candidate he's been running against.
"He knows full well that we don't want what he's been selling for the last year," Obama said. "Gov. Romney may dance around his positions, but if you want to be president, you owe the American people the truth."
Romney's spokesman dismissed the criticism as "damage control," while the Republican nominee sent a fundraising email to supporters with the subject "Victory in sight" and was visibly buoyed as he headed out of Denver. Romney laughed with aides at the front of his plane before the entourage broke into clapping and whistles as the pilot announced that the control tower commended the former governor's performance when the plane was approved for takeoff.
The former Massachusetts governor ignited loud sustained cheers earlier when he surprised a gathering of Colorado's Conservative Political Action Conference by appearing unannounced. He said the debate was "an opportunity for the American people to see two very different visions for the country."
"I saw the president's vision as trickle-down government, and I don't think that's what America believes in," Romney said. "I see instead a prosperity that comes through freedom."
Standing toe-to-toe with the president for the first time in the campaign, Romney held his own and more at a time when there already were signs that the race is tightening in some of the battleground states where Obama has enjoyed an advantage. Even the Obama supporters attending his rally gave Romney credit for a strong showing.
"I didn't think Romney was going to do as well as he did," said Suzanne Hetts, 52. She said she still thinks Obama is leading, but he needs to step up his game. "I thought he should have gone after him more."
The Obama campaign looked to recover with a coordinated message questioning Romney's honesty. The campaign quickly produced a television ad that argues Romney wasn't leveling with the American people in the debate about his tax plan and questions how he could then be trusted in the White House. The attacks were echoed by other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said Romney was "peddling snake oil" by hiding the details of his plan.
Vice President Joe Biden also questioned Romney's honesty while campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
"Ultimately, presidential races, unlike any other race, get down to character. They get down to the character of the man or woman and the character of their convictions: Do they mean what they say and will they do what they say," Biden said. "What I find fascinating, though, is that on nearly every issue, they don't tell you what they are for anymore, and they deliberately misrepresent what they say we are for. You saw it again last night in the debate."
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod held a conference call with reporters to accuse Romney of hiding the truth. But Axelrod also acknowledged the president learned some lessons and said he would adjust his strategy in the next two debates.
"Obviously moving forward we're going to take a hard look at this, and we're going to have to make some judgments as to where to draw the line in these debates and how to use our time," Axelrod said.
Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams responded to the accusations of dishonesty by saying Romney demonstrated in the debate why he should be president.
"In full damage-control mode, President Obama today offered no defense of his record and no vision for the future," Williams said. "Rather than a plan to fix our economy, President Obama simply offered more false attacks and renewed his call for job-killing tax hikes."
Obama also ridiculed Romney's promise to cut funding for public television to help reduce federal spending.
"That was his answer," Obama said with a laugh. "I mean, thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time. We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit. But that's what we heard last night. How about that? Elmo, too."
Both candidates were heading in the coming days to some of the most hotly contested battleground states: Obama was traveling to Wisconsin, then on to Virginia and Ohio. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan were off to Virginia, before Romney was moving on to Florida.
Romney told the exhilarated audience of Colorado conservatives they need to get voters who have converted away from Obama to the polls.
"You guys are going to have to cheer here, and then go out and knock on doors, and get people who voted for President Obama to see the light and come join our team," he said. "And if you do that, we'll all be able to come together and have a wonderful inauguration celebration in January. So let's make sure that happens."
Before leaving Colorado, Romney brought in more campaign cash to fund the final push. He went to a mansion on the Cherry Hills Country Club south of Denver, where a Bentley and other luxury cars were lined up for a private breakfast with donors who contributed at least $50,000. Their money will help fund Romney's current advertising gap in the final weeks, putting out messages like the ads his campaign revealed Thursday outlining his job creation plan and accusing Obama's budget deficits of raising the tax burden on Americans.
With a 13-day break before their next debate, Obama and Romney have time to hone their arguments while their campaigns continue to bombard the most hotly contested states with negative ads that go far beyond the more restrained jibes the candidates leveled from their respective podiums. Obama made no mention, for example, of Romney's caught-on-tape remark that he's not worried about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes. Democratic ads, though, have been making hay with the comment.
In the next few weeks, Romney is expected to give a number of policy speeches filling in details as he tries to sharpen the contrast with Obama while answering criticism that he hasn't clearly outlined his plans. The Republican challenger begins with a foreign policy speech in Virginia on Monday. Subsequent speeches are expected to focus on his plans for job creation, debt and spending.
Next up on the debate stage are Biden and Ryan, who meet Oct. 11 at Centre College in Danville, Ky., for their lone campaign debate. Obama and Romney go back at it on Oct. 16, in a town hall-style format at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Their final faceoff, devoted to foreign affairs, is Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.