We came together as a group of people not caring about who got credit, but caring about putting on the best Games in the history of sport and you did that. —Mitt Romney
SALT LAKE CITY — An emotional Mitt Romney clearly relished taking a brief break from the presidential campaign trail Saturday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Winter Games.
"I love you guys," he said, beaming at the hundreds of Games staff members and volunteers gathered in the Union Pacific depot at The Gateway to hear from their former leader.
The crowd, many wearing their brightly colored jackets and other gear from the Games, cheered and chuckled as Romney reminisced about his time at the helm of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
With local and national reporters in attendance, however, Romney made sure to thank the crowd repeatedly for their contribution in making the scandal-scarred Games a resounding success.
"There's power in unity," Romney said. "We came together as a group of people not caring about who got credit, but caring about putting on the best Games in the history of sport and you did that."
Later, at a special "Stars on Ice" show at Energy Solutions Arena, Romney said the community's hard work showcased "the character and the passion of the people of Utah."
He told the arena audience that he loved them, too, and "the experience that we shared together," noting that when he took over the Games in 1999, he feared no one would sign up to volunteer.
Instead, nearly twice as many people as needed came forward. Some gave millions to bolster the Games' budget, he said, while others worked for 17 days straight without pay or even tickets to events.
His comments came as Democrats and even one of his Republican opponents are raising questions about whether he's overstated his role in turning around the troubled 2002 Games.
A trio of former local government elected officials, all Democrats, held a press conference on the steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building earlier Saturday to criticize Romney's tenure at SLOC.
Romney is guilty of "arrogance and of acting as if we couldn't possibly do it ourselves. He had to come in to save us and ride in on his white horse," former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Sydney Fonnesbeck said.
Former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Joanne Milner and former Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch offered similar accounts based on their experiences with Romney.
"He was not the savior of the 2002 Olympics," Milner said. "It was the people of Utah."
A video released Friday by the Democratic National Committee also accused Romney of accepting the same kind of federal bailout for the Olympics that he now criticizes on the campaign trail.
But state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Utah's minority party has "no gripe with Mitt Romney's handling of the Olympics. He did a commendable job. I don't think it's useful for the Utah Democratic Party to say anything other than the truth."
The DNC reportedly lobbied hard for state party support of their national effort to discredit Romney's claim of turning around the Salt Lake Games, a key component of his campaign, even reportedly using a top adviser of President Barack Obama.
For most Utah Democrats there's no upside to challenging Romney, one of the state's most popular political figures. In Utah's 2008 GOP presidential primary, Romney won an unprecedented 90 percent of the vote over the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Romney reportedly raked in a record $750,000 at a fundraiser held at the Little America Hotel Friday night and met with his top supporters from around the country at a private breakfast Saturday.
"A lot of people are nostalgic about the Olympics and upset at the falsehoods said about the Olympics for political purposes and they wanted to welcome their leader home," said Kirk Jowers, a Romney adviser and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers said Romney welcomed the break from the campaign trail. He faces a tough challenge in the Feb. 28 primary election in Michigan and Arizona and the March 6 Super Tuesday elections from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who now is leading some polls.
Santorum joined in attacking Romney's Olympic leadership, telling a tea party rally in Columbus, Ohio, that the Games were saved because Romney "heroically" sought millions of federal dollars for the Games.
Fraser Bullock, who served as the Games' chief operating officer, said any suggestion that it was the federal government that actually stepped in to save the Olympics was unwarranted.
Much of the money, about $240 million, was for security, Bullock said — a responsibility of the federal government and of special concern after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We had our own budget. We were fine without that money. They just took care of security," Bullock said. "Saving the Olympics? No. Not for a second."
He said it was in the "unfortunate arena of politics that they take something that was so successful and unifying for the world, particularly in the wake of 9/11 and turn it into something for their political gain. That's crazy."
Bullock said what should be recognized is that "Mitt did a great job of rescuing the Games along with his team. And he's the first one to recognize what everybody else did. But to try to throw rocks at it is way out of line."
Nine-year-old Skye Belle Schuffenhauer couldn't stop smiling after getting Romney's autograph at the event for staff and volunteers.
Standing next to her father, Olympic silver medalist bobsledder Bill Schuffenhauer, she hugged her signed souvenir program tight.
"He's going to be the president," Skye Belle said. "Awesome."
Her father said he took the opportunity to thank Romney for what he did for the Olympics.
"You give credit where credit is due. He doesn’t even have to say anything. Those of us who have seen what he's done, know what he's done," Schuffenhauer said. "You have to have somebody able to step up and be a leader and Mitt Romney did just that."