Standing on the sun-baked bluffs at Horsetooth Reservoir, the city of Fort Collins sprawls below. The Cache la Poudre River curves through it, a shimmering, tree-lined strand in the afternoon heat.
The view is panoramic and peaceful, belying the political battle that is beginning to come into focus in the valley below. Could the 2008 presidential race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama be decided right here?
Fort Collins is a key swing area in a toss-up state, and both candidates intend to hotly contest Colorado's nine electoral votes.
There are plausible scenarios that show how it all could come down to Colorado, and to a swing area like this one, which could tip the state one way or the other.
Just north of here are Terry Lake and the nearby Poudre Valley Mobile Home Park, a dusty assemblage of single-wides jammed shoulder-to-shoulder on narrow drives. The trailer park is across the highway from Terry Lake and the road leading to the exclusive country club area and its luxury homes.
Trailer park manager Sharon Meaney, a Democrat, doesn't know whom she will vote for in November. She doesn't know enough about Barack Obama and is worried about John McCain's age.
But she does know what issue matters most to her, and many of the people who live around her in the park: health care. Seventy percent of the residents of the park speak only Spanish, she said. Almost all are poor. For them, medical problems and costs are major concerns.
"I won't make up my mind until November," Meaney said.
Moving south, the tops of office buildings in downtown Fort Collins emerge from the tree canopy.
At Zydeco's bar in Old Town, 26-year-old waiter Kellen Kincaid is leaning toward Obama. He has voted in every presidential election since 2000 and considers himself an independent.
He likes McCain, except for his pro-war approach to Iraq. For Kincaid, the war is still a big deal.
At the south end of town sprout the city's newest subdivisions, barely visible from the reservoir. Nancy Wear and her husband, Keith, live on a 5-acre spread they bought a year ago near LeMay Avenue and Trilby Road. They have life-sized metal sculptures of animals in their yard " a grizzly, a buffalo, an elk.
Those animals have names, Gentle Ben for the TV show bear, Buffie, and Samson, the name of the popular Estes Park elk killed by a poacher.
Nancy Wear, a lifelong Republican, also doesn't know whom to support for president. She fears Obama and his ideas are no match for Washington's entrenched bureaucrats, and she thinks McCain lacks the energy to be an effective leader.
Wear, sporting a golf visor, worries about the economy as more and more of her friends are reluctant to eat out or splurge for a round of golf because they are concerned about money.
Meaney, Kincaid and Wear are the faces of a swing area. Undecided, still thinking about it.
Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats in this university town of 130,000, 32 percent to 30 percent. But the dominant voting bloc are the unaffiliated voters with 38 percent.
George Bush won here during the 2004 presidential election, but so did Democrat Ken Salazar in his successful race for U.S. Senate that year.
In the 1990s, Larimer County and Fort Collins were generally considered locks for Republicans. That has changed as the area has grown during this decade. In 2000, Bush won Larimer County over Al Gore by about 14 percentage points. Four years later, he beat Kerry by just 5 percentage points.
The state House district seat on the east side of town has swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans like clockwork every two years. In 1996 and 1998, the Republican candidate ran unopposed. Since then, most elections for the seat have been decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.
"This will be one of those areas that will be very close," said former Republican state Rep. Bob McCloskey, who is trying to regain the seat he lost two years ago to Democrat John Kefalas. "I think McCain reaches into the middle of the district fairly well. I think, of course, Obama will have strong support."
The county has grown by 14 percent since 2000 and become more urbanized. The poverty rate has risen from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 13 percent last year.
Fort Collins is now on the northern edge of a mega metropolitan area that stretches from Larimer County to El Paso County in the south.
Larimer County along with parts of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties are the three areas along the Front Range that political operatives look to on election nights for voting trends, said Republican political consultant Alan Philp.
"Those are the classic swing areas," Philp said. "Republicans have to win them to win statewide."
All three voted for Bush and Salazar in 2004. Gov. Bill Ritter won big in all three counties in his victory over Republican Bob Beauprez in 2006. Democratic Party victories in state House and state Senate seats in Larimer and Jefferson counties were key to the party taking control of both state houses in 2004 and 2006.
Philp expects the Obama campaign to make a major push in the Fort Collins area because of the college crowd and high education levels among the residents.
"I think he's going to drive big numbers in a place like Fort Collins," he said. "It's been a very difficult territory for Republicans, probably in large part because of the war, the college environment and so forth."
The Fort Collins area is one of the state's fastest growing regions. It has a vibrant downtown anchored by the Old Town area and its pedestrian mall.
It is home to Colorado State University, the state's second largest college, and is filled with bicyclists and outdoor enthusiasts.
The county chairs of both political parties say they are preparing for the worst " big money donations, attack ads and ceaseless automated telephone calls to independent voters.
Fort Collins is home to Pat Stryker, a philanthropist, who routinely spends a million dollars or more on political campaigns on behalf of Democrats and their causes. The result, said Kirk Brush, chair of the Larimer County Republican Party, is a bombardment of negative ads.
"In many ways that affects our politics more than specific issues," Brush said.
His counterpart, Adam Bowen, head of the county's Democratic Party, expects to see political warfare in the bid for independent voters.
"The unaffiliated voters are always the ones that get the most robo calls, the most phone calls, the most direct-mail pieces," Bowen said.
Both McCain and Obama have their ardent supporters.
In the country club area north of the city, Kareen Davison, an active Republican who walks precincts for her candidates, said her choice of McCain is easy.
"There's no comparison," Davison said. For her, Obama represents socialized medicine; the racism of his former minister, Jeremiah Wright; and rampant liberalism.
McCain, by contrast, epitomizes retaining capital gains tax cuts and a measured approach to withdrawing from Iraq, she said.
"I talk to a lot of people here, they are scared of Obama," Davison said.
Her counterpart on the Democratic side might be Ken Morrison, owner of Old Town Import Repair, an auto shop on Jefferson Street in downtown Fort Collins. The lot behind the shop is filled with German and Swedish imports he plans to fix and resell.
The high-price of gas is a double-edged sword for Morrison.
It has generated interest in his high-mileage imports, but is costing him money during his own commute to work.
The bumper stickers pasted on the outside of his shop hint at his politics " "Frankly dear, I don't want a dam" and a Gore-Lieberman sign left over from 2000.
Morrison traces his political awareness to the race riots in Los Angeles in the mid- 1960s when he was a child growing up in Riverside, Calif.
Morrison, 52, said he detests George Bush and is convinced he will impose martial law on the country so he doesn't have to leave office.
"With Obama, it is not business as usual. I like the fact that we are about to elect a black man president of the United States," Morrison said.
But many more voters in Larimer County are wavering, worried about health care, the economy, gas prices and the war in Iraq.
Meaney, 64, the trailer park manager, a Democrat, and Wear, 63, the educational consultant, a Republican, find themselve at the heart of the dilemma.
Both don't know whom they will give their votes to in November.
"Bottom line, John is not strong enough and Obama is too new," Wear said.
"McCain's getting up there in years," Meaney said. "I don't know enough about Obama. I really liked Hillary Clinton."
Health care is a major issue for both residents. Wear and her husband, Keith, pay $1,000 a month for health insurance. Recently, her husband had tests and treatment for knee, heart and kidney problems.
She found herself scouring the bill for overcharges.
"What an eye-opener," Wear said.
Meaney sees shortcomings in the health care system daily among the residents of the trailer park she manages.
"I feel for them," she said.
Halfway between Meaney's trailer office north of town and Wear's home south of town sits the CSU campus. It is the city's economic engine and the student and faculty bodies can be a political force in most elections.
State Rep. John Kefalas, the Democrat who beat McCloskey for the state House seat in 2006, gives a lot of credit to the student turnout.
"The students voted for me three-to-one," Kefalas said.
Unlike many college campuses, the CSU students are not always automatic for Democrats. The school draws many of its students from rural areas and the conservative Colorado Springs area, said CSU political science professor John Straayer.
However, it has a decidedly more Democratic and Obama bent this election, Straayer said.
"I think a few years ago, it was pretty well split," he said. "I don't think it is anymore."
That's evident in room 132 in Wagar Hall, where 13 CSU students sit in political science professor Sandra Davis' Political Parties and Elections class. All are registered to vote and most of those who have decided said they will support Obama.
For student Nelly Pierson, it's the environment and the need for more alternative energy sources. Lani Barry doesn't back the war in Iraq. Jeff Dueck has begun taking the bus more and driving less.
But McCain has the backing of two students. For Anna Bertram, fiscal responsibility is a big deal. She wants Republican Mitt Romney as McCain's vice presidential candidate.
Alexandra Mergl said she turned to McCain after a lively discussion with friends over Obama not always wearing an American pin or holding his hand over his heart during the national anthem.
Away from campus, Susan Ellis, a registered Republican and political science major now entering her senior year at CSU, says rising gas prices have curtailed her 120-mile one-way trips to see her family in Colorado Springs this summer. Higher food prices have prompted her to cook more meals at her Fort Collins apartment, eat out less and eliminate most alcohol from her grocery budget.
"Those are my two biggest expenses right now " fuel and food," Ellis said.
She's not certain which presidential candidate to support, though she said she is leaning toward McCain because of his support for gun rights and sticking it out in Iraq.
"I'm still unsure if I'm actually going to vote that way."
She likes the new ideas espoused by Obama.
"If I did vote for him, it would be (because) his position is, let's go someplace different," she said. "Let's try to fix our economy. Let's try to deal with Iraq from a different point of view."
However, she doesn't like Obama's inexperience and liberalism.
The winner will have a direct influence on her life after college. She plans on entering the Air Force as an officer.
"The next president is essentially going to be my boss," she said.
Kyle Hegge also has sharply curtained his driving. The CSU political science graduate has parked his old Jeep Cherokee and its 12 miles per gallon in favor of his bicycle.
"I'm a broke college student," said Hegge, who believes the slumping economy is the biggest issue on voters' minds this year.
"People are worried about the looming energy crisis and how that affects their dollar expenditures," Hegge said.
He is a political junkie. He is an active Democrat who was a caucus delegate for Obama in February. But he also was an intern for Republican State Sen. Steve Johnson during the state legislative session and is now working on Democrat Betsy Markey's campaign for Congress against incumbent Republican Marilyn Musgrave.
Students at CSU have been drawn to Obama's candidacy this year, he said.
"The message of change really resonates with college students," Hegge said. "I'm not worried about his lack of experience. He knows what he wants."
He would have gone to the state convention as a delegate for Obama, but his graduation from CSU got in the way.
He feels the race will be close in Larimer County, with both candidates having constituencies.
"I think Larimer is going to be one to watch," he said. "Obama's got the momentum, but he's got to run on more than that.
Much of the Democrats' recent success in Colorado and Larimer County comes from the party's ability to win over independent voters, who make up a third or more of the electorate statewide.
Four years ago, Nancy Tellez, a retired schoolteacher, was registered unaffiliated and her idea of political activism was simply voting.
"I wanted to be thought of as a person who didn't just vote a party line, who voted for the person independently," said Tellez, now a school board member, who lives in southeast Fort Collins.
Now, she is active in the Democratic Party and was in charge of one of the precincts for Obama during the Colorado caucus in February.
From Tellez's neighborhood, the foothills that hide Horsetooth Reservoir are visible in the hazy distance.
A steady stream of runners and hikers make the trek from the bottom of the valley to the bluffs, a scenic respite at the end of the work day.
With less than three weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the political rumblings have started. The bumper stickers and yard signs are more visible. Voter registration drives by both sides are frequent side shows at weekend festivals.
Last week, the Obama campaign opened an office between downtown and the CSU campus, its ninth in Colorado.
The presidential race has begun to unfold in Larimer County - a key swing area that will help decide the fate of Colorado's nine electoral votes.