ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Mary Ann Yudez and Mary Pat Pagonis looked harmless enough, just a couple of suburban hockey moms chatting while waiting for practice to end at the Family Sports Center 25 minutes south of Denver.
But in this state, they're among the most dangerous threats to John McCain's presidential campaign.
"I always vote Republican, but I'm so disappointed with the Republicans over the last few weeks I'm definitely ready to vote Democratic,'' said Pagonis, 52, as her Republican friend nodded. "It just seems like Republicans can't get anything done on important issues. I'm afraid John McCain is going to be the same old, same old, and the way things are going, lack of experience may be preferable."
Colorado has emerged as one of the most important, and least likely, battleground states. Not since Lyndon Johnson has any Democrat cracked 50 percent in a Colorado presidential election, but Barack Obama is riding the Democratic wave through this state's stunning mountain vistas and vast stretches of desolate plains.
"We used to be kind of in the closet as Democrats here, because Colorado has been a Republican state for so long. Now more and more people I run into in my daily life are pro-Democrat,'' retired bookkeeper Susan Schnick said while volunteering at an Obama phone bank in Littleton. "I even put an Obama sticker on my car and never would have done that before."
The electoral math is simple. It takes 270 electoral votes to win, and of the states won by President Bush in 2004, Iowa and New Mexico are widely seen as solidly for Obama in November. If Obama holds all the states won by John Kerry and adds Colorado's nine electoral votes, that's it. Polls show him leading here by an average of more than 4 percentage points.
The notion that the Centennial State is poised to deliver the White House to Obama has Republicans scratching their heads. He doesn't seem like the cowboy hat type, after all, and last week Obama told the Greeley Tribune that he understands the American west because he was raised in Hawaii. Hawaii?
"It used to be you'd have to be a Democrat who was (a maverick) to win Colorado, but I don't know that I believe that any more. This is not the old west any more," lamented former Republican congressman Bob Beauprez, who lost Colorado's 2006 gubernatorial election to Democrat Bill Ritter . "I am very perplexed about this election. I still believe at the end of the day McCain will win Colorado, but it is very much up in the air."
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McCain faces an increasingly grim electoral map, and essentially pulled out of Michigan on Thursday to focus resources on must-win states like Florida. Obama, meanwhile, has loads of opportunities to win former Bush states, including Florida, Virginia and Missouri, which have 51 electoral votes combined. Colorado is the front line for both campaigns.
Just look at last week's parade of candidates: Monday, Obama campaigned outside Denver; Wednesday, his wife, Michelle, went to Boulder; Thursday and Friday, McCain campaigned in Denver and Pueblo; and Saturday, Sarah Palin was in the Denver suburbs.
That's a lot of attention for a state with roughly the same number of voters as the Tampa Bay area. But like Florida, Colorado is several states in one, politically speaking.
Spend some time among the Volvo-drivers at the Whole Foods Market outside Boulder or the students at the University of Colorado nearby, and you'd think Obama can't lose.
"I registered here because I think my vote will make more of a difference in Colorado,'' said freshman Mariah Lancaster of Massachusetts, who was among more than 2,000 people, liberally sprinkled with tie-dye, gathered to hear Michelle Obama. "People here are getting really active, because of eight years of Bush. Things are going so well, but I'm so nervous because you find a surprising number of conservatives."
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It's a far different story in Colorado Springs to the south, where inside the Panera Bread Co. one hears casual conversation about prophesies and Bible verse. Home to the Focus on the Family organization and the 11,000-member New Life Church, this is a national center for evangelical activism and it is McCain country.
"I will never vote for anyone who is not pro-life, but my biggest problem with Obama is that he is a socialist,'' said 36-year-old Tracy Fabel, a home-schooling mother of four, who is enthusiastically voting for McCain despite misgivings about Palin as a working mom with an infant baby. "It's not experience, but big government that's the main issue for me. I don't want someone who wants to solve my problems; I take responsibility for my problems."
Just up the road from New Life's sprawling campus, amid new subdivisions with little construction activity, undecided stone wholesaler Kevin Callegar talked about voting Democrat and vented about the tanking economy and lack of action in Washington.
"I haven't decided yet, but something's got to give, because we're dying on the vine here," said Callegar, with 14,110-foot Pike's Peak over his shoulder. "The Bush administration has been a disaster for the American people, but when Barack Obama talks about change I don't know that there's any teeth to it."
Jefferson County, west of Denver, is the bellwether battleground in Colorado politics. Outside the Home Depot in Golden, voters telegraphed their uncertainty.
"Everybody around here wants change, but it just depends on what they mean by that,'' said independent Marc Jones, a 56-year-old contractor and Obama supporter. "I have quite a few Republican friends interested in Obama, but by the same token McCain is acceptable to a fair number of Democrats."
Golden resident Jonathan Law, 27, has lost two construction jobs in six months and sees more interest and enthusiasm for Obama. But he isn't sold.
"I don't trust Obama on gun rights,'' said Law, an avid hunter.
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Politics ebb back and forth in Colorado. Bedrock western conservatism gave way in the 1970s to an environmentalist Democratic tide embodied by the likes of Sen. Gary Hart and former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder.
In the 1990s, a wave of culturally conservative newcomers turned the state solidly Republican until a few years ago when mandated spending caps fueled a state fiscal crisis and backlash against Republicans. About 8 percent of today's electorate is Hispanic, and polls show nearly 7 in 10 backing Obama.
President Bush won Colorado by nine points in 2000 and five in 2004, the year Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature. In 2006, Colorado elected Democrat Ken Salazar, a cowboy hat-wearing former farmer, to the U.S. Senate and moderate former District Attorney Ritter as governor.
"The Salazars and Gov. Ritters are more what I would call the Reubin Askew/Bob Graham Democrats who have the ability to attract just enough independents and Republicans. In Colorado they've kind of repositioned the image of the party so it's not as much far left,'' said Republican pollster David Hill, who works extensively in both Colorado and Florida.
Hill said Colorado's young population helps Obama, but the state's fiercely antitax sentiment could doom him if McCain can more aggressively grind Obama as another big government Democrat in the closing weeks.
"Maybe Obama is not your typical liberal, but I think when all is said and done, voters will think he is unacceptably liberal for Colorado,'' Hill said.
At the moment, though, Colorado is among several states where McCain is struggling for traction and can't afford to lose.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.