Once-Republican Rockies now a battleground

Streaks of blue are turning red-state Colorado as purple as its mountain majesties.

Liberal hues began to multiply in 2004, when Democrats seized control of the general assembly for the first time in 30 years. They intensified last fall, when voters loosened TABOR, a government- spending chastity belt long extolled by fiscal conservatives. This year, Colorado's color wheel is downright dizzying, as a bill to ban public smoking heats up the legislature.

This is Marlboro country?

The state's transformation from Rocky Mountain redoubt for conservative values to a proving ground for progressive policies is yielding more competitive elections here - and offering Demo- crats across the country a model for resurgence.

"We're probably the No. 1 battleground in the country," says pollster Floyd Ciruli, based in Denver. Democrats nationwide, he says, "are anxious to replicate what's going on out here."

What's going on is a flurry of victories for Democratic forces.

In 2004, despite a major voter- registration advantage for Republicans, and the popularity of President Bush, voters added two Democrats - brothers John and Ken Salazar - to its congressional delegation. That same fall, voters famous, or infamous, for parsimony approved $4.7 billion in transit funding, siding with Denver's Democratic mayor instead of the state's Republican governor. Democrats have been piling on victories ever since. Just last week, Senate Democrats passed a bill that would make driving without a seat belt a more serious crime. And this fall, Democrats have strong prospects to win back the governor's chair.

"The left has made substantial strategic strides," says John Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colo. But "that doesn't mean Colorado's voter base has changed."

To stage a comeback, he says, the state's fractured Republicans must decide whether to act more like Democrats, or less like them. "It's make-it-or-break-it time for the right here," he adds.

Elsewhere in the West, a swaying

It's a tipping point that spans the Continental Divide. In 1999, every state in the region - Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona - had a Republican governor. By the end of 2006, only Utah and Idaho may have one.

But the Democratic gains don't necessarily reflect broad conversion to liberal ideology. Instead, analysts see a backlash to years of GOP dominance. "It's not something fundamental that's changing so much as the far-right agenda that has pushed too far, and people in the West ... are pushing back," says Mark Cavanaugh, an analyst at Denver's Bighorn Center, a centrist policy group. "In the short term, we'll switch back and forth in this state."

The state's leftward lurch was immediately apparent to Denver native Ian Siparsky when hurricane Katrina blew him back home after five years in Louisiana. Taking time out from his job as a barista at "ink! Coffee" in Denver's Tech Center, he explains the changes he's seen. "It's become more liberal in aspects of health," he says, citing the antismoking bill - which he opposes. The state is still fiscally conservative, he adds, but the growing number of young people in Denver is helping progressive politics blossom.

Analysts credit an influx of independent voters with helping the state's political pendulum swing so freely. One-third of the electorate is new since TABOR was enacted in 1992, notes Mr. Ciruli.

"The state is full of informed, unaffiliated voters," says Mr. Cavanaugh. Colorado voters, he says, are "not driven by bumper-sticker-like messages."

Ciruli points out other factors. The 2001 recession, he says, hit Colorado particularly hard and pulled the political center of gravity away from issues like tax cuts and spending limits, and toward funding gaps and government services. The growing clout of a quartet of liberal financiers has also been instrumental in pushing a liberal agenda.

Those developments have favored Democrats. But that doesn't mean Colorado voters are fickle - just pragmatic, Ciruli says. "They'll ignore party labels if an individual is moderate and offering something intriguing."

Image often trumps party loyalty

Sen. Ken Salazar (D) is a case in point. President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D) here by 5 percentage points in 2004, but Senator Salazar picked up enough Republican votes to win.

His triumph, though, may say less about partisan trends than about the primacy of image. "It's not always political policy that drives who's in office" in Western states, says Mr. Caldara. "It's often likability, personality, and imagery.

"Ken Salazar never wore a cowboy hat until he ran for Senate. Today, it's stapled onto his head," he adds.

He and others point out that Colorado and neighboring states retain their bedrock conservative values even as they embrace Democratic issues and leaders.

"Colorado's political identity is increasingly independent," says Colorado's poet laureate Mary Crow. "Independent with a strong conservative streak."

A state where the biggest issue is often access to water may be easily dismissed as having a bit part on the national political stage. But observers here insist that Colorado should command the spotlight.

"Colorado is a bellwether state - the bellwether state," says Caldara. "Every year, Colorado becomes more important to the national scene.

Indeed, this fall, Colorado is set to become the first state to offer citizens two ballot questions about gay marriage - on opposing sides of the debate.

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