DENVER—Introduced by football legend John Elway to a crowd of thousands that filled an airport hangar, Mitt Romney failed to match the room's energy with his remarks before the eager audience Monday night.
Winning Colorado is within reach for the Republican presidential nominee, who trails President Barack Obama by just 3 percentage points in an average of recent statewide polling compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. A new national poll by Quinnipiac University released Wednesday shows Obama leading Romney 49 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, thanks in part to an 18 percent Obama lead among women voters.
Romney received a local boost when his campaign announced support from the Super Bowl-winning former Denver Broncos quarterback just before he took the stage, but Romney's lackluster remarks, delivered in a soft, measured tone, undercut the event's rally atmosphere.
He merely spoke lines that he sometimes builds into a crescendo on the trail.
"[Obama] is out of ideas," Romney said. "He's out of excuses. And in November, we're going to put him out of office."
The change in tone may be a reflection of his preparations for the widely anticipated first presidential debate, scheduled for Wednesday night. It could be that Romney's campaign wants him to soften his delivery to appeal to a wider swath of American voters who still personally like the president but are disappointed with his policies.
Romney did, however, stray from his regular stump speech to highlight a conservative—and controversial—religious group started in Colorado, Focus on the Family, as well as raise the specter of pro-union legislation known as "card check" that he hinted Obama would pursue in a second term.
"This is home for the Air Force Academy," Romney said at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver. "This is the home for Focus on the Family … it's also home to a pretty darn good football team. And another thing: I think this is the home of the place that will elect the next president of the United States of America."
The nod to Focus on the Family, a group founded by James Dobson based in Colorado Springs that promotes socially conservative public policy, is a play to the evangelical vote in the vast parts of Colorado outside Denver.
It's a base-energizing move, as was Romney's dive into union politics by bringing up legislation that would make it easier for unions to form. "Card check," officially called the Employee Free Choice Act, was the subject of hot debate four years ago, but was never brought up for a vote when Democrats held the White House and Congress, making it unlikely to happen in 2012 as Republicans are expected to remain in control of the House.
It was a curious foray into conservative keyword minutiae that may have been lost on some in the crowd.
"What was that bit about secret ballots he was talking about with unions?" asked one young voter to a friend when exiting the rally. "I don't know what that is; I didn't understand that."
In addition to outlining his economic and energy policies, Romney also acknowledged this week's debate.
"In my view, it's not so much winning and losing," he said. "But these debates are an opportunity to describe the pathway forward we would choose."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.