President Barack Obama told a cheering crowd of thousands Wednesday morning that opponent Mitt Romney would return the country's economy to the failed policies of a decade ago and women's health care coverage to the 1950s, adding: "Colorado, you've got to make sure that does not happen."
"The choice between going backward and moving forward has never been so clear," Obama told the audience gathered inside the Auraria Events Center on the Auraria campus downtown Denver.
The approximately 20-minute speech focused heavily on his signature health care bill, and specifically on how it has affected women. Behind him the risers typically reserved for people hand-picked by the campaign,were filled completely with women.
President Obama in Colorado
The president was introduced by women's rights advocate Sandra Fluke, who gained national attention earlier this year when she testified before Congress about the need for contraception coverage and was called a "slut" by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who later apologized.
Fluke told the audience that Romney — who has said he would repeal Obamacare and opposes Planned Parenthood — would not "defend the rights that generations of women have fought for."
Obama took the stage to cheers of "Four more years" from the crowd, estimated by fire officials at 4,000 people.
"If we win Colorado, I'll get four more years," he replied.
Obama, arriving for a two-day tour of this crucial battleground state just as polls show him either neck-and-neck or trailing Romney, tied the preventative care and other benefits provided by Obamacare directly to the economy. With women being the main breadwinner in many families and making up half of the work force, he noted, the issue "affects every family in America."
He also noted that the first bill he signed when he got into office was to help ensure that women are paid the same as men for equal work and that he has appointed two women to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sandy McCray described the speech as "right on."
"He's just so inspiring," said McCray, who is a marketing consultant in Golden. "Women do deserve equal pay for equal work. You don't hear the other side really promoting this."
McCray said that she's seen firsthand in her profession women making "significantly" less than men.
"And it's wrong. We need more politicians like the president to speak up for women," McCray said.
Obama also detailed how Obamacare already has helped more than 868,600 women get access to free preventive care such as mammograms and screenings for cervical cancer, with no cost to them.
A Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll released Wednesday showed Romney leading in Colorado with 50 percent to Obama's 45 percent, and a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent. With women voters, however, Obama has a lead of 51-43.
Krista Kafer is not among those women leaning toward Obama. Kafer is president of Colorado's Future Project, a research and educational outreach project supported by the conservative Independent Women's Forum. She called Fluke's presence at the event "a sideshow" and said Obama's approach to attracting women voters is "insulting."
"Women are interested in much bigger things than 'free' birth control and the kind of cradle-to-grave policies that the president has advanced in the name of 'protecting women,' " Kafer said. "Much like the rest of Americans, women want available jobs, a strong economy, education and affordable home values for starters."
But Jill Hanauer, president of the left-leaning research and strategy group Project New America, agreed with Obama that women's health issues are about more than contraception and reproductive rights.
And she refuted the notion that Obama is catering only to women with the discussion, saying so-called "women's issues" matter to many moderates, including men, and that it's actually a "values issue."
Dale Lockwood said after the event he was satisfied with the president's message of how his health care law has helped Americans.
"I think Obama's angle for the speech was such that it was very informative," said Lockwood, noting how the president explained various elements of his signature law, such as how it helps patients with pre-existing conditions.
Robin Paulson works at the Community College of Denver and made the short trek from her office to hear Obama's speech.
"In 2008, I was concerned about out health care system, but now I'm very pleased with it," said Paulson. " It helps more people immediately, who would otherwise have no other options."
After the speech, the Republican National Committee released a written statement decrying Obama's "pandering."
"President Obama and his campaign are once again pandering to women today, hoping to distract from the devastating effects Obama's policies have had on female voters. Today, unemployment among women is higher than when President Obama took office," said RNC Co-Chair Sharon Day. "More women are out of work in the Obama economy, and the few jobs that are created go disproportionately to men. Women who manage the household budget are forced to make do with less as grocery prices rise and wages fall. Mothers are terrified as they see their children's future mortgaged by reckless government spending,"
Obama heads next to Grand Junction High School for an afternoon event in one of the state's most strongly Republican areas. On Thursday he will speak at the state fairgrounds in Pueblo and on the campus of Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio — rumored to be among Romney's top choices for vice president — pulled into Denver on a bus with former Congressman Bob Beauprez and GOP chairman Ryan Call, and the trio held a rally near Sports Authority Field at Mile High Wednesday afternoon.
"Where are the Greek pillars behind me here," said Portman, alluding to the backdrop of Obama's 2008 acceptance speech inside the stadium at the Democratic National Convention. "He said right here 'elect me and I'll bring people together' ... sadly he's been partisan and pushed a health care law that not a single Republican could support. All of us want to fix the health care system, but he jammed through a big goverment approach."
A small group of GOP supporters gathered in the afternoon sun, as Portman said the president's first term has been filled with failed promises.
"In that convention speech he said something about energy ... he said 'we need to tap the resources here in this country,' " Portman said. "He talked about natural gas and oil. He has not tapped those resources."
When asked about Obama's speech, which charged that Romney would revert women's rights back to the way they were in the 1950s, Portman said the president was using "scare tactics."
"That's discouraging. He said it himself that when you're out of fresh ideas, you use stale tactics to scare people," Portman said in an interview with The Denver Post following the rally. "I don't know where he gets this stuff, saying Romney will move the country backwards."
After doing a series of interviews with local media, Portman boarded the campaign bus and headed south along Interstate 25 to Pueblo.