Battleground: Eagle County, Colorado |

Battleground: Eagle County, Colorado

Burt Hubbard
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colordo
Preston Utley/Vail Daily file photoRecord crowds showed up for this year's Democratic caucus in Eagle County. It's one reason Colorado is considered a battleground state in this year's presidential race.

DENVER, Colorado ” As Barack Obama stands on stage at Invesco Field to give his acceptance speech on Aug. 28, the national television cameras will no doubt have captured the scenic splendor of the Rocky Mountains in the distance and spotlighted the white bronco rearing by the stadium’s scoreboard.

Both are fitting images for the Democratic Party’s kickoff to win back the presidency through the West.

It’s a strategy that began back in January 2007 with the selection of Denver for the Democratic National Convention and continued through January and February this year with record-breaking turnout in caucuses in the Western states.

The strategy is simple: Bet on the West.

Win the 19 electoral votes of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico combined and the party could avoid having to sweat out results as it did in Ohio in 2004 or Florida in 2000.

In 2000, the final Electoral College tally was 271-267, with the Democrats losing both Ohio and, notoriously, Florida. They won New Mexico, but had they grabbed Colorado and Nevada’s combined 12 electoral votes the count would have been 279-259, Democrats.

In 2004, they dropped Florida, Ohio, all three of the potential Western swing states plus Iowa for a final of 286-252. Had they won the three mountain West states and their available 19 votes, they would have prevailed 271-267.

On Wednesday, McCain bluntly told a campaign crowd in Aurora that he has to have Colorado.

“I have to compete here. I have to win here if I’m going to be the next president of the United States,” he said.

The latest polls show the lead flip-flopping between Obama and McCain in Colorado and Nevada, while Obama has a slight edge in New Mexico.

“If a Democrat carries Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, you don’t need Florida or Ohio,” said Josh Geise, executive director of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

But that feat has only been accomplished twice by a Democrat in the past 60 years ” by Lyndon Johnson in his landslide against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and a second time by Bill Clinton when third-party candidate Ross Perot siphoned off Republican votes in 1992. And making matters more complicated, this year the Republican, U.S. Sen. John McCain, is a Westerner from Arizona.

“If they work at it very hard, I think there’s a decent chance,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University, of the Democrats’ strategy. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk at all. If they take it for granted, it’s lost.”

The Democrats’ Western plans include:

– Turning the heavy voter turnout during the primary season into a grass-roots campaign. In 2006, Nancy Tellez was the only person to attend her precinct caucus in Fort Collins. This year, 90 people showed up. “They’re all in our database with their contact information,” she said.

– Tapping into the rising numbers of unaffiliated and independent voters in the West who have tended to vote Democratic in recent elections. The Democrats have already successfully attracted the independents to win U.S. Senate seats and governorships.

– Launching relatively inexpensive, statewide television advertising blitzes that reach the entire state from one market. That way the party can target a small number of voters who are the keys to elections in the relatively sparsely populated Western states.

The political winds have shifted quickly in the West. In 2000, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada had Republican governors. Today, two of the three are Democrats.

Eight years ago, four of the six U.S. senators were Republican. Today, they are split evenly, with Democrats favored to hold five of the seats after November.

The Colorado congressional delegation has gone from two Democrats to four Democrats since 2000. The New Mexico congressional delegation had one Democrat that year. It may have two of three this year. So may Nevada.

Democrats control both statehouses in Colorado and New Mexico and may add Nevada this year.

It’s the kind of success that naturally caught the national party’s attention, said William Chaloupka, political science professor at Colorado State University.

Chaloupka said the swing was inevitable. By the late 1990s, the Mountain West was dominated by the Republican Party thanks largely to Ronald Reagan’s libertarian, anti-government appeal.

“It became as one party of a region as America had ever seen,” Chaloupka said. “Even in the South’s various one-party incarnations, there were always areas that differed.”

But the West is changing. Urban areas expanded in Denver, Albuquerque and Las Vegas. Liberal bastions emerged in each state, he said. Each state became more diverse. And they became more independent, with the percentage of unaffiliated voters rising in each state.

“To some extent, I think it’s a more diverse region than its almost unanimous Republicanism would have suggested,” Chaloupka said.

Nevada has grown by 28 percent, Colorado by 13 percent and New Mexico by 8 percent since 2000. Hispanics now comprise a fifth of Colorado’s population, a fourth of Nevada’s population and almost half of all New Mexicans.

The Obama campaign announced last week it will spend $20 million on voter registration in Hispanic communities with Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico three of the targeted states.

Both presidential candidates told the Rocky Mountain News that they think the three states are in play, but acknowledge it will not be easy.

“I think in recent years, in all three states, we’ve seen a more and more competitive status between the two parties,” said Arizona Sen. McCain, the Republican candidate. “You’re seeing a dramatic rise in independent voter registration and that’s partially due to dissatisfaction with both parties. So there’s more of the voting population that’s up for grabs.”

Obama, the Democratic candidate, said the winner will need to understand the region’s individualism and values.

“I think there is enormous independence in these three states,” Obama said. “People care seriously about all sorts of individual rights, not just gun rights or property rights, but also civil liberties and privacy.”

Two phenomena converged to prompt the Democrats to bet West.

The first was the ascension of Howard Dean as head of the Democratic Party. That put into play his 50-state strategy.

Dean credited his push-hard-everywhere game plan for the Democrats’ resurgence in 2006. “The fact is that this strategy not only works, it works in states Democrats have given up on for 30 years,” he said in one interview. “We cannot give up on anybody.”

The second was the emergence of Obama as the front runner from a crowded field of candidates.

Alan Philp, former executive director of the Republican Party in Colorado, said Obama has a unique appeal to the young and affluent voters in the West.

“He’s not toxic like Hillary Clinton is,” Philp said. “There is this kind of unique appeal where Democrats are going to make a real play for Colorado based on Obama’s appeal to higher income, youthful voters, and also a constituency that doesn’t like the party in power.”

All three states have large numbers of independent or unaffiliated voters who can swing elections.

In Colorado, unaffiliated voters now are the largest bloc of voters, while their numbers in Nevada have risen to double digits.

“It’s one area where the independent vote makes or breaks us,” said Kirsten Searer, communications director for the Nevada Democratic Party. During the 1990s, it swung Nevada for Bill Clinton, but was crucial this decade to delivering the state to George Bush, Searer said.

In New Mexico, the swing vote is different. Democrats hold a huge lead in voter registration, but many of them have conservative views on issues such as national defense, said Joe Monahan, political analyst.

“I think the conservative Democrats combined with the independents are kind of the swing vote,” Monahan said.

So far, Obama has a slight edge in New Mexico and is in a dead heat with McCain in Colorado and Nevada.

The voting trends favor Democrats in the three states.

Rob Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said the Republican Party made the mistake of emphasizing social and moral issues in recent campaigns, turning off voters in parts of the West.

“Part of the Republican bent has been to stoke up the Christian side of the equation,” Lang said. “You can alienate some of the states like Nevada where there is a very secular population. It doesn’t like intruding in terms of taxation or morality.”

Since 2004, Democrats have taken away control of both statehouses in Colorado, the governor’s mansion and a U.S. Senate seat.

For the first time in about 15 years, Democrats have a registration edge over Republicans in Nevada that continues to grow. Since February, Democrats have registered three new voters for every new Republican. The Republican governor’s approval rating is plummeting as he goes through a nasty divorce with allegations of infidelity.

In 2006, Democrats took four of the six statewide races.

“Traditionally, they (Republicans) do a much better job of candidate recruitment than the Democrats do,” said Dave Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “But now, they’re pretty much in a defensive mode.”

In addition, the state’s rapid growth has changed the state politically from the days when it was a Republican stronghold.

“The way Nevada looked 10 or 15 years ago politically is pretty much irrelevant to what it looks like now,” Chaloupka said.

But analysts said no one should count out McCain in the West.

Even though McCain finished fourth in the Republican caucuses in Nevada in January and irked some in the state with his opposition to gambling on college sports, he still has a slight edge in the most recent polls.

“Right now, it’s a pretty open state for McCain to come in here,” Damore said. “He’s done really relatively nothing here.”

Political analyst Jon Ralston believes Nevada is McCain’s to lose because the conservative rural voters tend to turn out in droves for Republican presidential candidates.

“You would have to say that McCain is a slight favorite,” Ralston said

In New Mexico, popular Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson is a strong Obama advocate.

But Richardson’s popularity did not help Kerry in 2004. Some statehouse districts that Kerry lost in 2004, Richardson won by 20 percentage points in 2006, in his landslide re-election as governor, said Democratic Party executive director Geise.

“It’s not uncommon, especially in some old Hispanic areas, to find people who are pro-union and love government programs, but they are also pro-life, opposed to gay marriage and support the military. On those issues, they side more with Republicans,” said Heath Haussamen, a New Mexico political analyst.

New Mexico was the only one of the three states to embrace Hillary Clinton over Obama in Democratic caucuses. They split Nevada. She was especially strong among New Mexico’s Hispanic voters.

However, Obama’s caucus strategy produced record turnouts in the Western states and that success could help him in November.

“If you look at the surge in Democratic excitement and participation in February, it may not all carry forward, but I think a lot of it will,” said CSU professor Straayer.

Chaloupka said the large pool of new political enthusiasts allowed the Obama campaign to find new talent.

“They were able to recruit a lot of people, observe them and promote the ones that did well,” he said.

For example, Tellez said the Democrats in Larimer County alone came away from the February caucuses with a list of 1,400 names to draw on during the general election.

“I am no longer a precinct committee person because there are other people to take that on now,” she said.

Each of the three states has a dominant media market, meaning that Obama and McCain can also get more bang for the buck either in television advertising or personal appearances than they can in Florida or Ohio.

“For them to have to buy back into contention in those states is going to be a more expensive proposition than to battle back here in the West,” said former Colorado GOP executive Philp.

For example, in Nevada, a candidate can visit the state’s two markets ” Reno and Las Vegas in the same day, said Zachary Moyle, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party.

“You hit both stops in the same day and they’re talking about you for weeks,” Moyle said. “Heaven forbid you go out to Elko and all of a sudden you are a superstar.”

In New Mexico, the race could turn on as few as 20,000 voters in key areas such as suburban Albuquerque or Las Cruces, Monahan said.

Even so, both candidates could spend millions of dollars in advertising toward a relatively small number of voters, Monahan said.

McCain and Obama and their parties have already launched advertising blitzes on television and radio in the three states and continue to make the rounds.

But the main event is yet to come.

The key to kicking off the Western strategy in earnest lies in the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Aug. 25-28, analysts said. Obama will take center stage at Invesco Field to re-introduce himself to the nation.

“It just makes the Denver convention all the more important,” Chaloupka said. “He will have far and away the biggest audience he has ever had.”

That and the Rocky Mountains as a splendid backdrop.

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