Election wild card: mobile voters

In the South and West, one pivotal factor is the large number of new arrivals, rocking states' electoral habits.

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At Democrat Tom Strickland's campaign headquarters, there's a sign that reads simply: 579,855. It's not the amount of money the Colorado Senate hopeful has raised, or the number of seconds until the election. Rather, it's the number of new voters that have moved to the state since Mr. Strickland's previous, unsuccessful challenge to now-incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard (R) six years ago.

Of the many forces shaping this year's closest contests, one of the most fundamental may be demographics. Rapid population growth throughout the Sunbelt and the Rocky Mountain West – from rising Hispanic populations in Texas and Florida to the Northern transplants filling suburban North Carolina and Georgia – are altering the political landscapes, creating new opportunities for political parties, and contributing to overall voter volatility.

But nowhere, perhaps, is it more dramatic than in Colorado, where the recent population explosion means that one-sixth of the electorate may be seeing the candidates' names on the ballot for the first time. As polls show the race essentially tied, both campaigns are scrambling to identify new pockets of support, and shoring up once-reliable areas.

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The candidates "can't take anything for granted," says Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. "They are either seeing opportunities to play offense or are being forced to play defense" in areas that once seemed secure.

But Colorado isn't the only state where demographic shifts have caught the political establishment off guard. In Texas, observers have long recognized that the growing number of Hispanics might one day make the largely Republican state more Democratic – but few thought it would happen in time for this year's elections. Yet with a Hispanic candidate running for governor and an African-American in a close battle for the Senate, Texas Democrats are poised to make a strong showing next week, and may pull off an upset.

Similarly, in Florida, the changing Latino community "has even caught Floridians by surprise," says pollster John Zogby. Long dominated by Cubans, whose politics lean Republican, the Florida Hispanic population is now equally made up of Argentines, Venezuelans, and others, says Mr. Zogby: "It is South America." This, along with a rising African-American population, may push the state in a more Democratic direction, boosting the challenger for governor, Bill McBride (D), in his tight race with Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Even the traditionally Republican South has seen significant changes. Rising minority populations, as well as the migration of many Northerners, is altering the leanings of states such as North Carolina, where the Senate race between Elizabeth Dole (R) and Erskine Bowles (D) has grown surprisingly close.

"A lot of the growing suburbs around Charlotte, Raleigh, and Atlanta don't behave like Southern suburbs because, well, they're not," says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "We've certainly seen Democrats being more competitive in North Carolina."

In the West, a shift to the right

The trend in the fast-growing Rocky Mountain states, on the other hand, seems to favor Republicans. Since 1992, the GOP has gone from holding three Western governorships to eight. Their advantage in Senate and House seats has grown from 23-17 to 31-9. In Colorado, their advantage among voters has more than tripled, to just under 200,000. "We have seen a general [Republican] shift in terms of registration ... over the past decade," says Colorado pollster Paul Talmey.

Yet local Democrats argue that many of the newcomers are up for grabs. "They're like a lot of the people who have lived here for years – in that they'll do a lot of ticket splitting, voting for the candidates they like rather than the party," says state Sen. Penfield Tate (D).

Demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan points out that much Colorado's growth has come from California, particularly from "would-be suburbanites that have felt they're not living in suburbs anymore in places like Orange County or Riverside County or the suburbs outside San Francisco." Many of these residents came to work in Colorado's burgeoning technology industry, and while they're often economically conservative, he says, they may be more liberal socially: "After all, they've lived in California." The white-suburbanite influx has also created more jobs for lower-skilled workers, Mr. Frey adds, adding to a Hispanic population that tends to vote Democratic.

Perhaps the best indication of Colorado's potential to become more of a swing state is the fact that the current Senate race is one of the tightest in the nation. Both candidates have tacked toward the center on issues: Strickland has emphasized his support for President Bush on Iraq, while Allard has been touting his actions on environmental issues.

Certainly, the influx of newcomers has taken away some advantages of incumbency for Allard, a former veterinarian who served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1996. Although Allard has made it his trademark to hold annual town meetings in each of Colorado's 64 counties, campaign manager Dick Wadhams admits that the senator has essentially had to reintroduce himself to many voters.

For his part, challenger Strickland argues that population growth has created new opportunities, by broadening the playing field. "We're competing for votes in every single part of the state," says the former US Attorney.

• Ed Halloran contributed to this report from Denver.

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