In an unmarked suite around the corner from Rick O'Donnell's campaign headquarters here in suburban Denver, the Republican National Committee has had its get-out-the vote "victory office" in operation since March. Volunteers man phone banks. The foyer showcases a wall of unflattering photos of Democrats in line to head key congressional committees should that party take back the House. A banner reads: "In case you need another reason to volunteer!"
In a normal year, the fabled GOP operation might be enough to tip the balance in a congressional race that, until September, was billed as one of the nation's most competitive. But with an unpopular war, an unpopular president, and corruption scandals, the GOP has seen Mr. O'Donnell's Democratic opponent take a double-digit lead in the polls.
So last week, the national party confirmed that it had shifted resources from this race in Colorado's Seventh District to help shore up Republicans in two other districts once considered safe: incumbent Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado's Fourth and conservative Doug Lamborn in the Fifth, where Republicans have an advantage of up to 14 percentage points in voter registration. Cautiously optimistic, Democrats now aim to pick up in Colorado as many as three of the 15 seats they need to take back the House.
"Colorado is more Republican than the nation but tends to follow national politics closely," says Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "If the national Democratic tide continues to run right through Election Day, it will affect Colorado and should put both the Fourth and Fifth districts in play."
The shift of resources means more money for TV ad buys and a get-out-the-vote drive in a fast-breaking political environment.
"From the vantage point of today, it looks good for the Democrats, but the situation is very fluid," says pollster John Zogby.
Democrats, too, are shifting resources to take advantage of new opportunities. After a Denver Post poll showed Musgrave leading by 10 points last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pulled some $630,000 it had reserved for her Democratic rival, Angie Paccione, although it still includes her in a program for its most competitive candidates. A political-issue group picked up the slack.
Both Republicans are getting high- profile help from the top. On Friday, Vice President Cheney flies into Colorado Springs to stump for state Senator Lamborn. On Saturday, President Bush will be in Greeley, Colo., with two-term Representative Musgrave as well as GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez.
Best known nationally as the lead sponsor on the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2003, Musgrave faces strong competition from Democratic state Representative Paccione. A former professional basketball player and teacher, she says that Musgrave is out of the mainstream and too conservative for the district.
In a race driven by negative ads from both camps, Paccione got a recent boost from some $750,000 in issue ads by Coloradans for Life, a nonprofit political-issue group (known as a "527" because of its tax-code category). The group is funded largely by Fort Collins heiress and Democratic activist Pat Stryker. The Musgrave campaign calls the ads "malicious," and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has already spent some $1.7 million to counter them.
"The liberal 527s went after Marilyn in 2004, and they're doing it again. When you have outside groups spending literally millions of dollars trying to knock out a Republican member, then the committee has to step in to level the playing field," says NRCC spokesman Jonathan Collegio.
Democrats are bringing in their own heavy hitters like former President Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
It's time to "knock off bedroom slippers and put on marching shoes," the senator told a fist-pumping crowd in Aurora, Colo., last week. Not that Democrats need much firing up in the Seventh District.
Early on, this race in the inner Denver suburbs was considered wide open because the incumbent, Mr. Beauprez, opted to run for governor. Now, former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter (D) has built a strong lead in the polls. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than to be smart, and we're at a time when people want a change," Mr. Perlmutter told the crowd in Aurora.
His GOP rival, O'Donnell, makes a similar point in an interview. "I picked a hell of a year to run as a Republican," says the former higher education commissioner.
While it's rarely clear how much big names like Obama or Mr. Bush actually contribute to turnout, it is a sign that unlike most midterm elections, this one is being slugged out on national themes.
"The fact that these national figures are going around the country shows that it's a nationalized race," says Rhodes Cook, a political analyst in Annandale, Va. "There are some 80 [congressional] races still on the radar screen, that's double or triple the number we had two and four years ago, and races had to be nationalized to produce that great an expansion of the field."
O'Donnell says his biggest liability is the perception that he walks in lock step with Bush and the national Republican Party. "I made a strategic mistake: I flew back [to Denver] on Air Force One," he adds. That photo was Exhibit A for a flood of negative ads, "all of the president getting off the plane with me and waving." An ad sponsored by the DCCC uses that scene for an ad that ends with the line: "Rick O'Donnell: Radical ideas and another vote for George Bush's agenda." The DCCC has spent more than $1.3 million for Perlmutter in this race.
In fact, O'Donnell says there's a lot he doesn't like about Republican politics in Washington, such as big spending and all those pork projects added to bills in the dead of the night. A policy wonk who wrote his own platform, O'Donnell says that he also disagrees with the president on immigration and thinks the House GOP is "out to lunch" on healthcare. "It's not enough to beat up on trial lawyers or create new health savings accounts. That in itself doesn't tackle our problems," he says.
Mr. Collegio, the NRCC spokesman, says that the transfer of get-out-the-vote resources to other districts does not mean that the GOP has given up on the Seventh District. But analysts say that this fabled micro-targeting operation may be swamped by a national Democratic tide in this election. A recent Zogby poll gives the Democrat Perlmutter a 14-point lead. Another puts it at 6.
"In a year when you had a motivated base on each side and the race is one or two points either way, that [ground game] matters a lot. But that's not what the Colorado 7 race is about now," says Amy Walter, who handicaps House races for the Cook Political Report. "There's a less motivated Republican base, a more motivated Democratic base, and independents are increasingly negative [toward the GOP]," she adds.