Obama strong in long-red Colorado

Demographic shifts may help turn the state blue.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Obama campaign volunteers Florence Starks and Jeff Jamison chatted with undecided voter Jacques Elmaleh, with his son Andre, in Arvada, Colo., last week.

Jamie Guetz has always voted Republican – until now.“I guess we’re Obama supporters,” says Ms. Guetz, with a wry smile, as she heads into a Gap store in Littleton, Colo., with her daughter.

Women’s rights and the war in Iraq have pushed her in a different direction. The woeful economy, she says, “is just icing on the cake.” Guetz’s parents, lifelong Republicans as well, will also be voting for Democrat Barack Obama.

Voters like Guetz are one reason Colorado, long a safe bet for Republican candidates, is moving into the Obama column.

Although the last Democratic presidential candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote here was Lyndon Johnson, the state has been trending more liberal for years – a result of in-migration, demographic changes, and a rising sense among some moderate Republicans that the state and national party have moved too far to the right.

The latest polls give Obama a lead of six percentage points over John McCain.

“The new Colorado is just not that congenial to Republican politics at this point,” says Ruy Teixeira, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a coauthor of a recent report on the region. The state is still most friendly to its own version of moderate Rocky Mountain Democrats, but Obama’s lack of experience may have actually helped him with some voters here.

“Obama has done a good job of seeming like he’s not just another Democrat from Washington, and he’s done well on issues that people in Colorado are sensitive about,” says Mr. Teixeira. “He doesn’t seem like an ‘I’m going to take your guns away’ kind of Democrat.”

Colorado’s shift to the purple or blue column has been gradual. In 2004, President Bush won here by 5 percent, but Coloradans at the same time handed a GOP Senate seat to Democrat Ken Salazar. In 2006, the state elected a Democratic governor and put a majority of Democrats in both legislative houses for the first time in nearly a half century. In part, voters blamed the Republicans in power for a state fiscal crisis.

“The larger sweep of recent history [in Colorado] has been on the Democratic side,” says political scientist John Straayer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Still, Senator McCain is a fellow Westerner, cultivates a maverick image that can play well here, and through July and August seemed to hold the edge in Colorado. Then came the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the economic crisis, and rising disenchantment with Mr. Bush and the Republicans.

A Senate race here has had Democrat Mark Udall comfortably ahead for months, but Obama has begun to show a similar lead only in recent weeks, says Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan Colorado pollster. State voters have become more comfortable with Obama, he suggests, and he credits the Democrats with running a smart campaign. Unaffiliated voters – typically about one-third of Colorado’s electorate – have started to swing to Obama.

Some voters here are not happy about their choices. Guetz, for one, says she feels as though “I have to decide if we want to pay more taxes or lose more rights.” She doesn’t want either but is more worried about the threat she sees to women’s rights from a McCain-Palin ticket.
With just nine electoral votes, Colorado is getting an unusual degree of attention. Obama has been here at least eight times during the campaign. Last week, Sarah Palin, Joseph Biden, and McCain all swung through on multistop visits.

But in an election in which McCain needs to hold onto all the states Bush won in 2004, those nine votes may prove crucial. It’s hard to imagine a McCain victory in which he loses Colorado.

Both demographic shifts – new, educated, younger residents pouring in from the East and West coasts – and strategy have helped Obama’s prospects. His campaign targeted this state early and has established more than 40 field offices, compared with a dozen or so for McCain.
It has also been wooing Hispanic voters as they’ve never been wooed. Making up 12 percent of eligible voters, Hispanics are a key group to tap, says Federico Peña, a former mayor of Denver and a national cochair of Obama’s campaign. Mr. Peña helped lead a massive “Viva el voto” rally Saturday aimed at getting out the early vote among Latinos.

Local Republicans, however, aren’t ready to cede the state, saying they see Obama as too liberal for Western voters.

“He has so many offices, but our get-out-the-vote operation is probably the best in the nation,” says Dick Wadham, chair of the state Republican Party.

When Sarah Palin came through the state Oct. 20, backers waited in line for hours in Loveland, north of Denver, to get into a packed rally.

McCain and Governor Palin have been drumming in the themes of “Joe the Plumber” and Obama as socialist, which resonate with some voters here.

“I’m not a socialist. I believe in helping others help themselves,” says JoAnn Belk, a Fort Collins resident at the rally. Still, Ms. Belk was surprised to find that at the church where she works only she and one other colleague back McCain. “I thought this was a really conservative county 15 years ago when I moved here,” she says.

McCain is expected to win in some rural areas of Colorado and in the socially conservative Colorado Springs area. But swing counties around Denver – including Arapahoe, Jefferson, and Garfield – and even traditionally conservative ones like Larimer County to the north seem to be moving to the left.

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