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Debate 2012: Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, on debate and Colorado

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Inside the University of Denver's giant press filing room -- where reporters in town for the presidential debate are already typing away -- we had a chance to sit down with Stephanie Cutter, President Barack Obama's deputy campaign manager. We asked her about the latest attacks on the president as well as some key issues relevant to Colorado, including voter suppression, the importance of this state as a battleground, and marijuana.

Here's our interview, edited for length.

Westword: Obviously, this location is no coincidence. Colorado is key in the race. From your perspective and the campaign's perspective, how important is Colorado at this point?

Stephanie Cutter: We were thrilled that the debate commission chose Denver to have this debate. As you remember, we had our convention here just four years ago, because of the importance of Colorado. And we had great results from it. For the first time in a long time, Barack Obama, a Democrat, won Colorado. And we're counting on winning it again this time. So having the debate here, it's a good investment. We've got hundreds of debate watch parties across the state. The president is doing a big rally here tomorrow. So we're excited.

WW: When you consider the key swing states, how does Colorado compare at this point in the game?

SC: Well, we are up slightly here, but we're not taking it for granted. We've got weekends of action. We're registering people to vote. We are driving out early vote.... We are getting people ready and primed for early vote. The president has been here...I want to say, ten times since the beginning of this year. And we'll be back.

WW: How high are the stakes tonight, and where do you think the president can really show the difference [between him and Romney]?

SC: You'll see the president really talking, having a conversation with the American people about where we've been as a country over the past four years, what we've accomplished together, but also where we need to go, what a second term of an Obama administration would look like...similar to what we did at the convention. Speaking directly to -- not the people in the room, necessarily, or the pundits on TV, but to the people sitting in their living rooms watching the debate tonight. I think that we'll have probably a record number of folks tuning in, and at the end of the night, I think you'll see a pretty stark difference in terms of two very different visions of where Barack Obama wants to take the economy, build it from the middle out and not the top down, and where Mitt Romney wants to take the economy, back to the same top-down, trickle-down economics that crashed our economy in the first place.

WW: Can I ask you about this 2007 video [of Obama, promoted by Fox News and Matt Drudge] that came out yesterday that everyone's talking about? [The clip shows Obama introducing his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in glowing, familiar terms.] What's your perspective on that and why it's coming out and what it means to voters?

SC: My perspective is, it's a desperate attempt to change the conversation. It's a speech that the president gave, open press, covered by many of the same people, including Fox News, all of the networks, five years ago. And at the time, he was talking about the Bush administration's inadequate response to [Hurricane] Katrina. And he talked about that constantly -- 2005, 2006 and 2007. Because it was inadequate, and there's no doubt about that. It's interesting that Mitt Romney's allies want to go back to a conversation to defend the Bush administration's Katrina response. It's an odd strategy if they're trying to actually help Mitt Romney.

WW: Some of the backlash I've seen is people talking about the president putting on a voice and "changing his accent," and that's something they said on Fox News.... Some people say they are offended by that.... Do you have a perspective on that?

SC: I don't think the American people are offended by that. There's no secret that Barack Obama is black. I think the American people understand that. But they also understand that he was doing the right thing by making a point that we've got to take care of our returning veterans who come home with PTSD. We've got to take care of those kids who grow up in foster care, who know no other life than what they have, in terms of working hard, getting a good job. It's that type of message that he was delivering back then, and he would do the same thing now. This is all a desperate attempt to change the conversation for Mitt Romney's comment...that he said behind closed doors to his top donors about writing off half this country, the 47 percent. Those are the same veterans the president was talking about, the students the president was talking about, the seniors the president was talking about. Mitt Romney has written them off, and that's caused his campaign great damage, because it's confirming what people already thought -- that he is not out to take care of the middle class.

WW: The other thing that you've been responding to is Joe Biden's comments that the middle class has been buried, and I know in Colorado, the Romney team has been pushing that comment. Do you have thoughts on that tactic?

SC: I think that the Romney campaign is really good at taking a comment out of context and going on attack. What they're not good at is describing what they would actually do for the middle class. So, Joe Biden was saying what he says every single day on the campaign trail, that the middle class bore the brunt of this economic crisis for one particular reason -- because the decks were stacked against them for decades, before we came into office. The one thing that we have done -- the president has woken up every single day during this administration to figure out how we can get the middle class back on its feet, strengthen middle-class security. And you'll hear more about that tonight.... The only way to grow an economy built to last, not the economy that crashed when we were coming into office, is with a strong middle class at its core. And we have specific policies to do that. Mitt Romney doesn't.

Continue for more from our interview with Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. WW: How much of a concern is voter suppression to you -- the issue of potential efforts to make it more difficult to vote...broadly or specific to here in Colorado?

SC: You know, we're always cognizant of voter-suppression efforts, but I don't think that voters have anything to fear in this election. We've fought back some of the most repressive laws to ensure that people can exercise their right to vote and they will be able to exercise their right to vote. So we're encouraging people to get out there and register. We're encouraging people to get out there and vote early and join our campaign to help other people get to the polls.

WW: And something Dick Morris said when he was here...

SC: When was Dick Morris here?

WW: He was here a couple weeks ago. It was part of an Americans for Prosperity event, and something he said...was that Romney is struggling with black voters and Latino voters, but they're probably not going to show up. And that's a reason to be confident that Romney will ultimately win this race.

SC: Well, I think black voters and Latino voters will prove him wrong. And put that in your paper. You know, that's a challenge... If they were so confident on their ability to get their base out, then why were they contracting with voter-file agencies that were illegally signing people up to vote? If they're so confident in their ability to get their voters out, then why were they taking illegal tactics? (She laughs.) You know, we have a massive voter-registration effort and a massive voter-drive effort across this state, [and] across every battleground state. That's how Barack Obama was elected in the first place. And it's not just about black voters or Latino voters. It's about all voters. In 2008, we saw one of the highest participations in our lifetimes. And I think that we'll see that again this time. People know what's at stake.

WW: And do you think the other side is trying to up their ground game?

SC: I can't speak for them, but I think that you can't win presidential elections without building a strong ground game where you're connecting with voters and having a conversation with them. We never stopped having that conversation after 2008. We've been having this conversation for five years now. Many of the volunteers that we have here on the ground in Denver have been with us since 2007, and their efforts haven't stopped.

WW: Are you overall confident that people who would vote for Obama are going to come out and vote?

SC: Absolutely. People know what's at stake in this election.... If you elect Mitt Romney, let's be clear. It means your health care is going to be taken away from you.... It means that you're back on the hook for big bank bailouts, because he'll repeal Wall Street reform. It means that your taxes are gonna go up, because he wants to give a $5 trillion tax cut geared to the wealthy, paid for by middle-class tax increases. If you're looking to find a way to afford to go to college, he's going to tell you to shop around rather than give you low-interest student loans.... He wants to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class.

WW: Can I ask you a question...that I brought up before when Kal Penn was here?... There are some people who are concerned that folks are going to go out and vote for Gary Johnson because legalizing marijuana is an issue that's important.... What do you say to those folks who are concerned that the president has been too strict in terms of marijuana?

SC: Well, I think that that's his policy. But there's a lot of issues to be voting on in this election, and you know whether it's how you're going to build a better future for your family or afford to send yourself to college, Barack Obama has been laying out a path forward on all of those issues. Mitt Romney wants to take us back.

WW: So the president has been here quite a lot.... Is there anything he really likes about Denver and Colorado? Does he enjoy coming to this state and this city?

SC: Absolutely. As I said, we had our convention here. This is where it all started. So there's a sentimental notion to coming back to Denver. It's an absolutely beautiful state, diverse state where some of this administration's greatest successes are living and breathing. The clean-energy industry is just one example. It's a symbol of what we can do in the future.

More from our Politics archive: "Libertarians, religious leaders criticize two-party debate, push Gary Johnson"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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