DENVER — The candidates were still onstage, delivering their closing statements, but behind the scenes the march of the Republicans had begun. Into the vast media hangar they came, parading triumphantly beneath red signs bearing their names under the “R” campaign logo of Mitt Romney:
Portman. Rubio. Giuliani. Hatch.
They had come to claim victory before the first presidential debate had concluded, a show of confidence — and no shortage of satisfaction after a long month of GOP self-doubt — in their belief that their candidate had clearly bested President Obama.
“We have a new race, ladies and gentlemen,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared the moment Romney uttered the last word of his closing statement.
It would be 15 more minutes before the first Democrats arrived in the media spin room — first campaign director Jim Messina, then senior White House adviser David Plouffe, looking tired and uncertain as a handler guided him, weaving and bumping, through the crush of reporters surrounding the Romney surrogates.
At first, an aide held the blue Plouffe sign downward, rather than high above in the jaunty way the Republicans had done.
Reporters rushed over to Plouffe and peppered the usually implacable adviser with questions: Did Obama lack energy? Did the president miss a chance to land jabs? Should he have been more aggressive?
“I think you guys all seem to think that Romney was aggressive,” Plouffe said, trying to fight back. “My sense is you’re going to find some people at home thought he was quite testy. I think sometimes in these debates, particularly with Twitter, ‘Oh, look at this, Romney’s being aggressive.’ ”
Messina was hit with similar questions about the president’s performance: Why did Obama seem to be on the defensive? Do you actually think he won the debate? Was he too much of a professor?
On that last question, Messina said, “No, absolutely not.”
His take echoed Plouffe’s: “I thought Governor Romney came off as testy.”
As for all the punditry that Romney looked stronger, more confident, more aggressive, Messina said, “You guys can award him style points all you want.”
There seemed to be little doubt, though, that Republicans were newly energized after weeks of setbacks. A secretly recorded video of Romney’s remarks at a private fundraiser had put the candidate on the defensive about his commitment to the poor and middle class. Polls showed Obama opening a small but clear lead nationally and in the swing states.
GOP strategists had said Romney needed to hit Obama hard over his record on the economy, and he did that repeatedly.
Just as Romney tried to take command of the debate stage — looking into Obama’s eyes as he he tried to indict his presidency, interrupting the moderator to press his points — the Republican surrogates tried to shape the media narrative coming out of Denver.
“If this was a boxing match, the referee would’ve called it about an hour into the fight,” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried a different metaphor. “The American people saw the difference between a teacher and student,” he said.
The Romney camp, as disciplined and unemotional as the candidate, allowed some elation on Wednesday night. There was Bob White, Romney’s closest friend and Bain Capital co-founder, a stone’s throw from the Fox News set, hamming it up with Ron Kaufman, a longtime Romney adviser and confidant.
Over in the corner, by the dark tunnel entrance, Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist — who has come under fire from critics as Romney has slipped in the polls — felt redemption.
“Clearly someone dominated in a debate in a way we haven’t seen in a presidential debate in a long time,” he said.
Visibly pleased with his candidate’s performance, Stevens added, “Who enjoyed being on that stage tonight?”
He answered his own question: Mitt Romney.
Hours before the debate, there was a sense of nervousness in the Romney campaign because this was the make-or-break moment. Romney had been rehearsing for several months, and after all the hours of coaching, he would be on stage alone.
At 5:30 p.m. Mountain time, amid heavy winds and graying skies, Romney left his hotel, a drab Renaissance off a suburban highway.
He passed a group of supporters who had gathered in the driveway, including a group wearing red Office Depot uniform shirts, some still sporting nametags.
Romney had ordered takeout from the Cheesecake Factory. Arriving at Ritchie Center, the home of the University of Denver’s hockey team, he tried to relax backstage, playing Jenga with his wife, Ann, and their sons and grandchildren.
Romney’s longtime advisers said they were confident, but they did not take any chances: Peter Flaherty wore his lucky red tie, patterned with small lions.
Obama had prepared, too, for three days in a Las Vegas suburb. He flew into Denver early Wednesday afternoon and conducted a walk-through of the debate site. He then retired to his hotel, presumably for final preparations.
At 6 p.m., the president’s motorcade departed the hotel en route to the university, under darkening skies with a gusty wind. A crowd across the street chanted, “Four more years!” But closer to the venue, Romney supporters held signs reading “Fire Obama.”
At 7, moderator Jim Lehrer introduced the two candidates: Obama in a blue tie, Romney in red. They strode to center of stage and shook hands. Obama patted Romney’s elbow, and both smiled. Then it was time to debate.
Romney gave “as crisp a performance as he’s ever had,” Kaufman said. “He was ready for this. He enjoyed it. He had a lot he wanted to say, and he said it.”
After Romney’s two successful debates during the Florida primary, Kaufman gave the candidate a baseball that Reggie Jackson had signed “Mr. October,” Jackson’s nickname for his clutch performances under pressure in baseball’s post-season.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, you earned this ball tonight,’ ” Kaufman recalled. “When it counts, Mitt steps up to the plate.”