ST. PETERSBURG — A newly confident Mitt Romney returned to Florida on Friday and picked up where he left off at the first presidential debate, attacking President Barack Obama on taxes, spending and regulation.
"I enjoyed that debate a couple of nights ago," Romney said as the crowd of about 6,000 people drowned him out with laughs and applause. "That was a great experience."
He spoke for 19 minutes before a backdrop of a setting sun over Tampa Bay, making the case that the sitting president has failed to keep his promises and is ill-equipped to solve the nation's economic maladies. The words on a rug under Romney's feet as he spoke: "Florida victory."
"I will not raise taxes on small business, and I will not raise taxes on middle-income families," said Romney, who was accompanied by his wife, Ann.
Romney delivered his remarks from a platform surrounded by supporters — some of whom waved blue foam baseball gloves with "Mitt" in the middle — at Pier Park in downtown St. Petersburg.
They broke out into chants of "Romney, Romney" and cheered as the former Massachusetts governor promised to champion small businesses and reduce the nation's $16 trillion debt. Romney also ridiculed Obama's spending on green energy jobs.
"He got a chance to explain his jobs program, how he's going to create new jobs in America," Romney said. "Did you hear what he had to say? I didn't either."
A dozen or so people and, yes, two men dressed as Big Bird protested the evening rally, focusing on Romney's proclamation that he would cut federal funding for the Public Broadcasting Service.
The group held mock boxing matches between an oversized Romney puppet and the famous yellow bird in front of the winding line of Romney supporters, some of whom laughed at the stunt. One bout ended with the man inside the Romney costume placing his foot atop one bird's chest and declaring victory.
Adding to the anti-Romney imagery: an activist flaunting an oversized Etch A Sketch and a skeleton sprawled on a hospital bed, meant to symbolize Romney's Medicare plan.
Romney used St. Petersburg to launch a three-day tour of Florida. Today, he'll campaign near Orlando; on Sunday, Port St. Lucie.
It's no surprise Romney is spending the weekend in the state, nor that Obama will return to Florida next week. A RealClearPolitics average of polls shows the state in a dead heat, with each candidate averaging 47 percent of the vote.
"Florida is a very important state," said St. Petersburg resident Tiffany Jones, 33, to her daughter Ava, 6, before Romney spoke. "Very important."
While Obama can lose Florida and still be re-elected, Romney almost certainly needs Florida's 29 electoral votes. A loss here would mean Romney would likely need to run the table in eight other swing states — Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire — in order to be elected Nov. 6. Polls show Romney trails in all of those states except North Carolina.
Romney's debate victory could help flip the script.
"I was so thrilled at the debate, for people to see my husband unfiltered, without any negative ads, without any media trying to interpret what he says and what he feels in his heart," Ann Romney told the crowd. "This is a man who cares about the American people."
Supporters agreed, saying he revived his base.
"He was wonderful," said Nancy Davis, a 77-year-old retired teacher and social worker. "That really energized all of us. I think it shows that he's up on all his issues, and he's much more qualified to be president than Obama."
Romney did not mention that the unemployment dipped below 8 percent Friday, a figure that had become a hallmark of Romney stump speeches.
Romney "doesn't want to acknowledge how businesses have added 5.2 million jobs over the past two and a half years, and that the unemployment rate is now at its lowest level since January 2009," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said. "Nor does he want to tell the truth about how he'd bring back the same policies that got us into the mess in the first place. Americans want to move forward, not back."
A slew of local lawmakers including Pinellas County's two Republican congressmen, Gus Bilirakis and C.W. Bill Young, helped introduce Romney, along with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a Democrat, and Alabama U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat-turned-Republican. Not at Friday night's rally: Gov. Rick Scott. Scott has yet to campaign with Romney in the state.
"For God's sakes, please vote," Greco said. "And please vote for Mitt Romney."
Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at [email protected]