The Agony of the Democrats

Frustration, anger, and denial -- until now mainly heard from Romney partisans -- were on display among Colorado supporters of the president following his weak debate.

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Reuters

DENVER -- The weather here can change in an instant. It hit 80 degrees on Wednesday, before President Obama met Mitt Romney for their first debate. But by Thursday morning, when some 12,000 people gathered at a lakeside park to hear the president speak, it was not quite 40 degrees -- and the mood among Obama's supporters had plunged along with the thermometer.

Frustration, anger, denial: For weeks, you could hear them at Romney's events, from supporters chagrined by his floundering campaign. But after the president turned in a debate performance near-universally seen as dismal, it was Democrats' turn to be in agony.

"Don't believe the pundits -- what do they know?" a ski-jacketed Sen. Mark Udall told the crowd, to cheers. Some in the audience agreed -- they just didn't see the Obama the commentariat had panned; they insisted he'd actually done a fine job. But most acknowledged the president had fallen short.

"I think Obama looked completely stunned," said an exasperated Jean Willis-Brown, a 54-year-old commercial appraiser in Evergreen, southwest of Denver. "I kept waiting for him to recover."

Obama supporters told me they watched the debate in a perplexed fury. Some yelled at their televisions, trying to supply Obama with snappier answers as if they were watching Wheel of Fortune. Others turned off the debate halfway through, unable to take it.

"I was not happy," said Diann Simpson, a 65-year-old Ford retiree from Denver who said her daughter was "even more pissed off" at Obama. "I don't know what his endgame is. As many lies as Romney told last night, you got to get him back!"

They blamed the media: PBS's Jim Lehrer, who moderated the debate, was widely taken to task for letting Romney walk all over him (although Obama actually spoke for four more minutes than Romney overall). "Mitt Romney didn't show polite manners," complained 69-year-old Joe Anderson. "The elderly gentleman running the debate wasn't ready to be overpowered like that."

Some professed nervousness that Romney would get a burst of momentum out of the debate and possibly move ahead in the polls, especially in a closely contested swing state like Colorado. They urged Obama to get more aggressive and unleash tougher personal attacks -- something Romney's rank-and-file supporters are always telling me they wish he would do, too.

"Obama was a guy who came to a gunfight with a knife," said Beverly Bunker, an unemployed education consultant from the south Denver suburb of Centennial. "He was too nice! There was no 47 percent. He didn't talk about Bain. He didn't bring up women's rights and he only sort of skimmed by offshoring jobs." Voters, she fretted, would believe Romney's slick lines even if Obama's supporters knew better.

When Obama took the stage -- tieless, in a dark-blue windbreaker and khakis -- he offered his own spin on the debate, though he made no acknowledgement of his own listlessness.

"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 Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy. The fellow onstage last night said he didn't know anything about that."

Romney, he said, did "not want to be held accountable for...what he's been saying for the last year, and that's because he knows full well that we don't want what he's been selling for the last year." He took Romney to task for saying he'd cut funding for public broadcasting: "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."

Obama seemed to relish the mockery of Romney, and the crowd did too. But with the president loose, on his game, and hurling attack lines, his supporters couldn't help but wonder: Where was this guy last night?

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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