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.
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."
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.