How's Obama faring in the Rocky Mountain West?

The president, in Montana on Friday and Colorado on Saturday, has so far taken care not to alienate 'New West' swing states. But rumblings are nonetheless afoot.

By , Correspondent

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    President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia make their way toward Air Force One, upon departure from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Friday.
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Barack Obama has said he loves the Rocky Mountain West and, last November, this little corner of it reciprocated.

Though he lost Montana in the presidential election, Mr. Obama carried Bozeman and surrounding Gallatin County, the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, notes political scientist Jerry Calvert, at Montana State University here. He won Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

But that blip of support could be tenuous. Though changes in the interior West – which the president and first lady visit for three days beginning Friday – have brought newcomers whose sensibilities are less rock-ribbed Republican than the old-timers', the region's pervasive streak of independent-mindedness means the New West can hardly be considered Democratic Party turf. To keep at least some places in the "swing state" column, Obama will need to step carefully to avoid the mistakes of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, say political analysts in the region.

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Democrats on the skids

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Clinton dispatched Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, to the Western hinterlands, where he championed reform of mining rules and livestock grazing, recovery of endangered species such as wolves, and cuts in the tree harvest from national forests. Those positions became yet another rallying cry for then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R), who parlayed antigovernment sentiments into midterm-election victory, giving Republicans control of Capitol Hill that lasted for 12 years.

“I think Obama is well aware of what happened to Clinton,” says Brian Kuehl, managing partner of The Clark Group, a policy think tank, who was formerly the legislative director for US Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana. “Obama and those around him are smart enough not to repeat those mistakes, but more importantly, the West is different than it was in the early 1990s.”

So far, the president has reached out to hunters and anglers, and he has avoided a major tiff with the National Rifle Association by not pushing for gun control. During this Montana trip, the president may attempt to fly-fish, one of his aides said Thursday.

Interior Secretary Salazar a plus

Obama's selection of former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department is also a promising sign, says Mr. Kuehl, who now lives in Sheridan, Wyo., and is the son-in-law of former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan. A Hispanic-American with ties to the ranching industry, Secretary Salazar is an outspoken supporter of the right to bear arms and a conservation-minded sportsman. He has never been accused of being too green. Still, he helped to sell Obama's wilderness protection plan and reform of a 19th-century mining law linked to costly ecological problems and giveaways of public land.

With the contentious Pacific Northwest timber wars largely a thing of the past, Obama is on surer footing than Clinton was, Kuehl adds. He also cites the Democratic Party's decision earlier in the decade to stop ceding the red cowboy states to Republicans.

“I attribute the resurgence of Democrats [in the region] to a mix of factors,” Keuhl says. “We forget that, traditionally, good portions of the West had been not only Democratic but progressive. You could still see vestiges of that with the success Democrats had in governorships, state legislatures, and down to the mayoral and local city council level.”

A strain of revolt is evident

Still, Obama and the Democrats' grip in the places like Bozeman, near the site for Obama's town hall meeting on healthcare Friday, is slippery. Consider this: Last year on the Fourth of July, Obama and his family attended a picnic in the bare-knuckled mining town of Butte, Mont. This Independence Day, with the federal deficit ballooning as a result of corporate bailouts and stimulus spending, hundreds of "Tea Party" protesters stormed down Bozeman’s Main Street.

Moreover, some in the region see similarities between now and the 1990s, a time when the West harbored militia groups, neo-Nazis, the tax-protesting Freeman and Posse Comitatus, and other radical antigovernment or extremist groups.

“The fact that Obama is African-American certainly is an issue for groups that, by their beliefs, have very little tolerance for nonwhite ethnicities,” says Ken Toole of the Montana Human Right Network. “Bad behavior always rises when people feel economically stressed, fearful of the unknown and powerless. There’s plenty of that out there now. A lot of folks feel it.”

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