Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Once-reliably Republican Colorado takes spotlight as a swing state

DENVER — A familiar chant blared from a loudspeaker at a park here Thursday: "Fired up, ready to go."

The response from 12,000 people gathered to see President Barack Obama was decidedly lackluster, and it would be too easy to assign it to the chilly morning air. Coming a day after Obama's listless debate performance against Mitt Romney, there was a noticeable lack of oomph.

It's a long way from 2008, when Obama electrified voters in this state and defeated John McCain by 9 percent. Colorado has embraced its place among battleground states and is making Obama and Romney fight for its 9 electoral votes.

Polls have been consistently tight and the unemployment rate is higher than the national average.

"I think people thought everything could be fixed in four years," said Sharon Meriash, a 52-year-old artist in Denver who attended the Obama rally. "He got handed a big plate of mess."

Colorado has been overshadowed by other swing states this election, the Ohios and Floridas and Virginias that get daily candidate visits and nonstop media attention. That changed this week as Romney and Obama held rallies bracketing the debate and dispatched a host of surrogates to make their case.

Once reliably Republican but steadily moving to the middle, Colorado's changing complexion is fueled by an influx of residents from other states over the past three decades. They are attracted to the lifestyle and an emerging base of skilled jobs. Another wave is under way with Hispanics.

"It's a lot like Florida in terms of you always have people moving into the state," said Dick Wadhams, a GOP strategist, adding the state's reputation as a Republican bastion is overblown, as evidenced by Democratic success in statewide elections. "About the time a party gets comfortable in this state voters say, 'Nope, not so fast.' "

The state can be carved into equal parts Republicans, Democrats and independent swing voters heavily concentrated in the Denver suburbs. Through it all runs a distrust of partisan politics and Washington.

"It's part of the ethos of the place, the mountains and the freedom of the range," said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic consultant. He thinks Obama will prevail on his middle-class message but dismisses the notion of the state falling permanently into Democratic hands.

"Colorado will remain very competitive for many years to come," he said.

With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992, Republican presidential candidates had won every election since 1968. The demographic shifts paved the way for Obama, who ran an unprecedented ground game and mobilized college students and Hispanics, who make up 20 percent of the population.

"The left here in Colorado is much better organized," said Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute in Denver. "It's not that the state is much more liberal; it's just that the left has learned the rules better. The voter registration for Hispanics is like nothing I've ever seen."

Colorado became part of Obama's expanded playing field in 2008, joining Virginia, North Carolina and a handful of other states that traditionally favored Republicans. Romney must recapture most of those states to win in November.

So he and Obama are engaged in a vicious war on television and on the ground.

Romney has been playing to the state's fiscal conservative nature, hitting Obama on the national debt and federal spending. "Will America be forever indebted by Barack Obama?" asks one of the mailers pouring into the homes of independent voters.

Obama is running nonstop an ad that plays off Romney's disparaging comments about the "47 percent" — the amount of people he said are dependent on government. He is also joining liberal groups in suggesting Romney would trample on women's reproductive rights.

A trip to Jefferson County, which encompasses the Denver suburbs and is the largest swing county in a swing state — a place where hippies co-exist with NRA members and farmers — shows how Obama's 3-to-1 spending advantage is working.

"Romney doesn't seem very sincere," said independent voter Danielle Worden, 20, who manages the Golden Skillet in Golden, home of Coors beer. "I feel like he doesn't care about the little guy." Seven months pregnant, Worden said she is also turned off by Romney's pledge to defund Planned Parenthood.

Vanessa Licon, a 24-year-old dental assistant and mother of two, said Romney's 47 percent remark "made me feel mad. At one time I had to depend on food stamps. I'm not a victim. I just needed it."

Several voters said they will back Romney but made it clear they were not enthusiastic about him and saw little difference with Obama.

"It's Coors or Coors Light," said Charley Ray, a 40-year-old self-described libertarian who was loading supplies into his truck at a Home Depot outside Golden. He said Obama could not be trusted to cut the deficit but worries Romney is not making a strong-enough case for himself.

"There's still a strong feeling of rugged individualism here that Romney has not tapped into," said Caldera, the conservative activist. "It's not too late, but Romney really needs to talk to Coloradans about what makes this election so important."

GOP officials contend they are avoiding the mistakes of 2008. Volunteers have made 1.2 million voter contacts, which includes four times as many phone calls as 2008 and six times as many door knocks. "Barack Obama won Colorado by almost 9 points last time around and now we're in a toss-up," said Ryan Call, chairman of the state GOP.

Romney swept into Denver on Monday evening for a rally that drew 5,000 people at an aircraft hangar and was introduced by Broncos legend John Elway. The candidate stood before giant letters that spelled out J-O-B-S and condemned Obama's handling of the economy.

At the end, Romney asked the crowd to go home and reach out to Obama supporters and try to change their minds.

"Four years ago I would see Obama signs all over my neighbors' yards, tons of bumper stickers" said Annika Dobrski, 41. "They're mostly gone this time."

The crowd exuded a sense of optimism and many said they did not believe polls showing Obama ahead. The audience was overwhelmingly white, however, serving as a not-so-subtle reminder of one of Romney's problems and, by extension, the future of Republicans in Colorado.

Polls show Obama is dominating the fast-growing Hispanic vote, which already makes up more than 12 percent of the overall electorate here. Republicans have been counting on a lower turnout due to higher unemployment among Hispanics and the president's failed promise to enact immigration reform.

But Democrats have been aggressively mobilizing the vote, pitching Obama's plans for the middle class and more affordable college. Meantime, Hispanics still remember Romney took hard-line immigration positions during the Republican primary.

"Once he said we were freeloaders, that was it," said Maria Grijalva, referring to the 47 percent comment. A Latinos for Obama sign hangs in the front of her restaurant on Federal Boulevard in Denver, where rows of shops signs are in Spanish. Grijalva said she has heard Spanish-language ads from Obama and seen campaign volunteers in the neighborhoods. She hasn't seen the same from Romney.

Still, despite being outspent and perhaps outworked on the ground, Romney's strong debate performance Wednesday helped win over some undecided voters.

"Four years ago I knew Obama was going to win hands down," said Katie Jones, 34, a nurse in Denver. "Now I can tell a lot of people are on the fence."

Not her. She has decided on Romney.

Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]

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