Mitt Romney touched down Monday night in Denver in advance of Wednesday’s first presidential debate, but before the Republican nominee hunkers down with his advisers he staged an energetic rally here to preview the message he intends to deliver on the debate stage.

“This economy is not in recovery. We’re not seeing the real recovery,” Romney told some 5,500 supporters at an aircraft museum. “The president’s policies have not worked. He doesn’t get that. He doesn’t understand that. We must get America growing again with a strong economy.”

Romney said that many viewers of the debate would be looking to declare a winner and measuring who scores the biggest punches.

“There’s going to be all the scoring of winning and losing and, you know, in my view, it’s not so much winning and losing or even the people themselves — the president and myself,” Romney said. “It’s about something bigger than that. These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we would choose.”

Romney said he hopes Wednesday’s debate begins a conversation with the American people that will span nearly the entire month of October, with two subsequent presidential debates as well as the vice presidential debate.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith responded to Romney’s remarks here with a statement: “On Wednesday night, he will need more than ‘zingers’ and attacks on the president. He will need to honor his campaign’s promises to get specific and tell the truth to the American people.”

Romney’s Monday night rally was his final scheduled public event before the debate. His wife, Ann, plans to rally supporters in Colorado on Tuesday, but the candidate plans to continue his debate preparations in private. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is playing Obama in Romney’s debate rehearsals, and a coterie of senior advisers flew here with Romney on Monday from Belmont, Mass.

There was an air of excitement at Romney’s rally as minutes before it began the campaign announced the backing of John Elway, the former Denver Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback. Elway joined Romney on stage and offered a brief, one-sentence endorsement: “I must say today has been a very good day… because I get the opportunity to introduce to you the next president of the United States, Governor Mitt Romney.”

Romney wrapped his candidacy in all things Colorado, saying he was thrilled to be campaigning at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

“When I was a boy, my mom and dad used to read to me from a book called, ‘Men to Match My Mountains,’” Romney said. “Perhaps we should change the title to, ‘Men and Women to Match My Moutnains,’ because right here, men and women have matched the mountains in Colorado and they’ve matched the mountains in aircraft like that.”

Speaking at the Wings Over The Rockies Air and Space Museum, a converted hangar now filled with retired Air Force jets, Romney noted Colorado’s unique role in the nation’s aerospace history, as the home of the Air Force Academy and NORAD.

Romney then tore into the president over his economic stewardship — “The middle class squeeze has been unbearable,” he said — as well as his foreign policy record.

“For the last four years, we’ve had a foreign policy led by a president who believes the strength of his personality is gonna get people to do the right things,” Romney said. “Well, we’ve seen fires burning in U.S. embassies around the world. We need the strength of American military, America’s economy and America’s principles if we’re gonna keep this world more safe and preserve liberty.”