President Barack Obama opened his Denver trip Tuesday evening by dining with five Colorado residents who wrote the White House and shared their stories of trying to make it in today's economy.

Then he strolled Lower Downtown, shaking hands and eventually playing pool with Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The conversations over pizza at the Wazee Supper Club in LoDo are meant to reinforce the main thrust of a speech Obama is expected to deliver Wednesday in Cheesman Park — that Congress, in particular Republicans, aren't doing enough to "expand opportunities for the middle class," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, in an interview.

Barack Obama at Wazee Supper Club
President Barack Obama sits down for dinner with five Colorado residents at the Wazee Supper Club in downtown Denver after arriving in Colorado on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

And if that populist message also provides a boost to vulnerable Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who is facing a re-election battle against Rep. Cory Gardner, then so be it.

"It's time for Congress, especially Republicans in Congress, to do their part," said Earnest, citing issues such as raising the minimum wage, ensuring access to pre-K programs and lowering the cost of college tuition.

"While these kinds of issues don't get a lot of attention in the news media or Washington, they are at the top of the agenda every time the president walks into the Oval Office," he said.

When Obama speaks at Cheesman Park, he will "reiterate his commitment" to making a difference in these areas and "underscore the degree" that he is "fighting for the issues that will benefit middle-class families in Colorado," Earnest said.


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The rhetoric also gives the Obama administration a chance to turn the tables on Colorado Republicans, who have tried all week to link Democratic candidates such as Udall and Hickenlooper to the president and his underwater poll numbers.

As part of this strategy, the state GOP invited U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to talk on the phone Tuesday about the visit. Although Rubio had little negative to say about Udall personally — other than the fact he was a Democrat — the rising star in the Republican party hammered the administration for dividing voters on the economy and other issues.

Obama "has chosen to be a divider for political purposes," said Rubio, who is backing Gardner .

That race looks to be one of the tightest in the country, and Obama needs Udall to win so Democrats have a fighting chance of keeping control of the Senate. To that end, the Denver trip also includes a fundraiser — which Obama will headline — to raise money for candidates such as the Colorado Democrat.

However, none of the major Democratic candidates in Colorado who are up for re-election this year are expected to join Obama at Cheesman Park.

Instead, the event — which is closed to the public but open to the press — will include attendees "invited by the governor's office and other community organizations and elected officials," Earnest said.

Several hundred Colorado residents are expected to attend.

Obama arrived to overcast skies about 6:10 p.m. Tuesday at Denver International Airport.

Obama, joined by Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter, waved toward about a dozen local reporters capturing the arrival.

Obama arrived at the Wazee Supper Club in lower downtown a little after 6:30 p.m.

Patrons watching the Rockies baseball game on several large screen TVs stood to greet the president. They clapped and let out shouts of support as Obama shook several hands.

President Barack Obama plays pool with Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Obama is in Denver to raise money for Sen. Mark Udall’s
President Barack Obama plays pool with Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. Obama is in Denver to raise money for Sen. Mark Udall's re-election bid and is expected to discuss the economy Wednesday. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

He then made his way to a table where five Colorado residents who had written to him about issues that range from college affordability to equal pay were waiting.

"We're going to have some pizza and talk," said the president as he sat at the head of the table.

As the photographers snapped pictures, several patrons stood on chairs trying to get a better view of the president. After about eight minutes the press was ushered out of the restaurant.

That group meeting with Obama included Alex Dooley, who lives in Denver and works at a furniture upholstery store.

She wrote to the president after the 2014 State of the Union thanking him for calling on businesses to raise the minimum wage.

After dinner at the supper club, Obama walked along 15th Street shaking hands for about 10 minutes with several dozen people who lined the street. Many LoDo residents stood on balconies watching as the president posed briefly for photos with pedestrians.

Many people cheered and yelled the presidents's name. The evening felt much like a campaign stop for Obama, who accepted the Democratic nomination for president here in 2008.

He then traveled a few blocks north to the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where he met Hickenlooper. The pair had a round of beers and played a game of pool.

Patrons crowded around to the president and Hickenlooper, who is up for reelection this November, as they circled the table trading shots. Hickenlooper was a founder of the brewery, which opened in the 1980s.

As the pool press huddled around, Obama took an early lead on Hickenlooper, who was dressed casually in a blue oxford shirt and slacks. Then the reporters were escorted from the brewery.