‘We can’t turn back now’

Michelle Obama thrills Durango audience in campaign stop at college

About 3,700 people greeted first lady Michelle Obama for her campaign stop at Whalen Gymnasium on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango. Enlargephoto

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

About 3,700 people greeted first lady Michelle Obama for her campaign stop at Whalen Gymnasium on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango.

Durango was swept into the throes of the presidential campaign Wednesday when first lady Michelle Obama visited Fort Lewis College as part of a two-day tour around Colorado.

“We can’t turn back now,” the first lady told a crowd of 3,700 during her speech in the college’s Whalen Gymnasium.

“While we still have a long way to go to completely rebuild our economy, there are so many signs that we are headed in the right direction,” Obama said.

It was Obama’s second stop of the day as she worked to fire up voters across Colorado, which is one of a handful of states that seem to remain closely contested in the presidential race. The first lady, who literally came out punching, brought an energy to the crowd that many people thought President Barack Obama lacked a week ago during the first presidential debate in Denver.

The Southwest Colorado crowd’s cheering swelled to a crescendo when Mrs. Obama entered the gymnasium.

“This is a beautiful part of the state,” Obama told the crowd. “I don’t know if I want to leave.”

Backed by her husband’s trademark “Forward” logo, Obama promoted her husband’s work on health care, job creation and financial aid for students. She reminded the crowd that the president ended the war in Iraq, signed into law the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and made an executive order that grants temporary legal status to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, allowing them to continue their education or career here.

With less than a month to go before the November election, Obama used the last part of her speech to hammer away on her message of getting out the vote.

“This election will be closer than the last one. That is the only guarantee,” she said. “And it could all come down to what happens in a few key battleground states, like right here in Colorado.”

In 2008, President Obama won Colorado by about 215,000 votes or 73 votes per precinct, which isn’t much, the first lady said.

“That could mean a couple of votes in one neighborhood,” she said. “You all in this room could swing an entire precinct for Barack Obama.”

And she targeted her message to the audience peppered with college students.

“For young people, this is about the country you will inherit,” she said. “Elections are always about hope,”

Once in a lifetime

A quarter-mile-long line began snaking through campus hours before the first lady’s 5 p.m. speech. People in the queue called the experience “once in a lifetime.”

“How often do you get a chance to see the first lady in Durango?” said Earl Caudill, a Bayfield resident.

Caudill and several other audience members credited Obama with an elegant speaking style and an ability to advocate for issues that matter to everyday Americans.

“She came up from everyday people, (she and President Obama) continue to be everyday people, and she speaks to everyday people,” Caudill said.

Students were strongly represented in the audience, and dozens shared the stage with Obama.

“She speaks about the younger generation and the prosperity that’s possible for them,” said Francine Hatathlie, a senior at Fort Lewis College, before the speech.

Obama also impressed Elizabeth Somers of Durango.

“It was so great. She hit every point. The women, the health care, jobs, corporations – just everything,” Somers said after the rally.

The visit was an exhilarating few hours for Durango and Southwest Colorado, which, many local officials acknowledged, rarely make it onto the itineraries of national politicians. Local historians wracked their brains to recall another time when a sitting first lady had visited and spoken in Durango. All came up empty.

Today’s front page will be “filed away for future historians,” said Carolyn Bowra, director of the La Plata County Historical Society and the Animas Museum.

“It is nice when politics come home because so many times Washington seems so far away. It is easy for us to feel disconnected,” she said.

GOP present, too

Before the first lady’s speech, a half dozen people, most from Farmington, were on campus holding Romney-Ryan signs. One called it a “peaceful walking campaign.”

Andrea Buchla, of Farmington, said, “I love our country. I think the only way to take it back is to vote Romney in.”

Republicans can look forward to a visit from one of their own political stars. La Plata County Republicans are expecting House Speaker John Boehner to visit the Glacier Club on Oct. 21, said Kenneth Fusco, first vice chairman of the organization.

The La Plata County Democratic Party had been pushing for an Obama visit whenever it got a chance, La Plata County Democratic Chairwoman Denise Bohemier said.

“I think somebody was quoted in the paper as saying Colorado isn’t just the Front Range and the Western Slope isn’t just Grand Junction, and we’ve been pushing that point every opportunity we get,” she said.

This time, clearly, Durango’s voice was heard.

ecowan@durangoherald.com Herald staff writers Shane Benjamin and Luke Groskopf contributed to this report.