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Denver — “People here like to feel the merchandise,” says Representative Cory Gardner, a 38-year-old Republican from eastern Colorado, as we chat at the debate site. Gardner knows, of course, that tonight’s debate is a national event. But its location, he tells me, means many undecided voters from his state will be tuning in to this debate, perhaps more than the others. “It is important for Romney that people be comfortable with him,” he says.

Gardner’s district is pretty conservative. It went for Santorum during the primary. He thinks conservatives are ready to campaign hard for Romney in the final five weeks, but he acknowledges that the debate will play a part in stoking (or decreasing) enthusiasm. “I hope Romney shows us the contrast,” he says. “They will be onboard, they’re not going to vote for Obama, but they want to hear him explain the difference. They’d also like to see him in Colorado more, to see him in the northern and eastern areas.”

“Mitt Romney is a guy who understands the economy, and that has to come across,” Gardner says. “The president has spent a lot of time painting a picture of Romney as a person who doesn’t understand the country. That’s not true and, I think, Romney will show how off-base the president’s personal attacks have been.”

Gardner adds that debates are critical, but they don’t determine everything. He recalls the Bush–Gore debates from 2000. George Bush had a bad first debate and Al Gore repeatedly sighed. “Saturday Night Live made fun of both of them,” he laughs, and Bush went on to win the election. 



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