DENVER (AP) — Political buffs and young people looking for free T-shirts crowded the University of Denver campus Wednesday to watch the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on large outdoor screens.
A free concert by The Lumineers and a pep talk by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am contributed to a festival-like atmosphere before the debate began.
“‘Yes we can’ doesn’t mean just to vote,” will.i.am told the crowd. “It means ‘devotion.'”
Some students left after the Lumineers’ set. Perhaps 3,000 others, many sitting on bales of straw, watched quietly and occasionally applauded as Romney and Obama exchanged arguments. With temperatures dropping steadily, most left within minutes of the end of the debate. Workers quickly cut down red, white and blue balloons that had decorated the area.
University of Denver graduate student Kathryn Hobson said debate day was long, but thrilling. The 28-year-old volunteered as an usher in the debate hall — and also got to meet will.i.am.
“I think the school handled it very well,” she said, adding: “My feet are killing me. I’m super-tired, but it was worth it.”
Political activists lined nearby streets hours before Romney and Obama arrived. The street theater included female Romney supporters wearing short shorts and holding signs that said, “What War On Women?”
A woman walked around dressed like a package of birth control pills to send the message that Obama was the better choice for women seeking birth control.
About 150 Occupy Denver protesters marched peacefully outside campus before dispersing. Police reported no arrests or citations. Officers on bicycles rode alongside the marchers, while a handful of police in riot gear hung on to the sides and back bumper of an SUV that tailed the crowd.
At the front marched Cheri Honkala, vice presidential candidate of the Green Party, behind a banner that read, “Stop the Empire.”
“Together we will occupy the land, we will occupy the White House and turn it into the green house and take our country back,” Honkala said.
Protesters shouted slogans denouncing a two-party system and the war in Afghanistan and demanding affordable health care.
Jason Leher, 23-year-old Evergreen State College student from Denver, was cutting out paper letters for a large blue sign that read, “The whole world is our free speech zone.”
“I’m concerned about everything there is to be concerned about,” Leher said. “Ultimately we need to come together and cooperate instead of compete for resources if we want to thrive instead of struggle. … This debate is controlled by interests that would lose their position of economic power if that were to happen, if we had cooperation.”
For added security, authorities temporarily closed a six-mile stretch of busy Interstate 25, which skirts the university campus. Lines of orange state snowplows spanned the interstate to block access, a surreal barricade on the otherwise vacant freeway. The closure forced commuters to seek out alternate routes or take mass transit instead. Many decided to work from home or call in sick.
Not everyone around the debates seemed interested in politics. A group of college students raised money selling “Obamanade” and hot dogs, while children too young to vote came to see the musicians.
Watch parties were held around the state, including one for about 300 people at the new History Colorado Center, where a post-debate town hall featured former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, a Republican.
The Romney campaign hosted 49 debate watch parties around the state. The Obama campaign held watch parties at restaurants and field offices in Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Durango and Pueblo.
– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer
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