DENVER – Colorado, the host of Wednesday’s first presidential debate, has offered Democrats a blueprint toward future political success as the state turns away from the attitudes and demographics that once made it a Republican stronghold.
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This combination of file pictures shows President Barack Obama removing his jacket after arriving at Tampa International Airport on September 20 in Tampa, Florida, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney putting on his jacket before departing Newark airport in New Jersey for Ohio where he will address a campaign rally on September 14, 2012.
The political terrain here has changed rapidly since the days when George W. Bush won the state by 9 points in 2000 and 5 points in his 2004 re-election bid. Rather, Colorado has become an incubator for Democratic success. The state was once dominated by Republicans, but Democrat Ken Salazar's 2004 Senate race victory helped break the GOP stranglehold. Democrats now hold the governorship and both Senate seats.
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What has gone on here closely mirrors the political shifts happening at the national level. A growing Latino population has become increasingly Democratic, putting the GOP at a natural “disadvantage,” according to one state lawmaker. And Republican candidates face tremendous pressure to cater to influential conservatives in the party, giving Democrats ample space in the center for the general election.
“We’re Western Democrats. We’re very different from East Coast Democrats,” said Mike Melanson, a Democratic operative in Colorado and senior partner at OnSight Public Affairs. “And as long as you brand yourself in that tradition, then you, as a Democrat, can do well.”
That same story is now playing out in the presidential election. President Barack Obama has worked toward building Colorado into a Western foothold for Democrats as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shows signs of struggling to rally independents, women and Latinos both here and in a broad swath of other battleground states.
The Centennial State is now firmly battleground territory. Obama led Romney, 50 percent to 45 percent, among likely voters here in a Sept. 20 NBC News/Marist/Wall Street Journal poll.
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Romney spent Monday evening courting voters in the Denver area and looking to make up ground versus Obama, just as he’ll try to do in Wednesday’s highly anticipated debate.
“These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we would choose,” Romney told a crowd of about 5,500 in his last public event preceding Wednesday’s showdown.
The highly produced rally featured an appearance by Denver Broncos legend John Elway and a giant backdrop reading “J-O-B-S” as if to emphasize the theme of Romney’s remarks.
“I look forward to these debates. I’m delighted that we’re going to have three debates,” Romney said. “It’ll be a conversation with the American people that will span almost an entire month.”
But the GOP hopeful’s struggles here are as deeply rooted as many of the Republican Party’s own broader, long-term political challenges.
The Latino vote, for instance, has grown in Colorado with each successive election, and has trended increasingly Democratic in the meanwhile.
Latinos accounted for 20.7 percent of Colorado residents in the 2010 Census, up from 17.1 percent a decade earlier. That growth has been particularly pronounced in suburban Denver. The Hispanic or Latino population grew 10 points, to 38.2 percent, in Adams County, and jumped from 11.8 percent of Arapahoe County in 2000 to 18.7 percent in 2010.
“The population shift has made Jefferson County a battleground county. At one time, it was solid red,” said State Rep. Jim Kerr, a Republican who hails from Jefferson, the third county to make up the Denver metro area.
The Latino population growth hasn’t been as pronounced in Jefferson County, but has still forced Republicans here to reckon with changing politics. Republicans’ tone toward Latinos and on the issue of immigration has threatened to drive those voters away from the GOP.
“The olive branch is there. There are the Tom Tancredos over our party,” said Kerr, referring to the former Colorado congressman who was a strident opponent of illegal immigration, “then there are the common-sense Republicans of our party … We’re trying to build a better message – to be a big tent party.”
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Melanson pointed to the uptick in voters who don’t formally affiliate with either party as a driving force in Colorado politics. He argued that the state had shifted back toward the center after experiencing a kind of Republican renaissance around the turn of the century.
(That isn’t even to mention the disadvantage Romney faces with women. Obama leads Romney, 54 percent to 40 percent, among likely women voters, according to that NBC/WSJ/Marist poll. Obama beat Arizona Sen. John McCain by 15 points among women in 2008.)
Obama – whose 2008 nominating convention was here in Denver – was able to take advantage of these changes in Colorado when he defeated McCain four years ago. Obama beat McCain, who was one of a few Republican champions of immigration reform, 61 percent to 38 percent that year among Latinos.
The president seems poised to do the same in 2012. A national impreMedia/LatinoDecisions poll of registered Latino voters released Monday found Obama with a 73 percent to 21 percent advantage over Romney. The same poll found Democrats with a 69 percent to 22 percent advantage over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot.
The challenge for Romney is to erase some of these deficits – with women, with Latinos, with unaffiliated voters – in the next month.
“If Mitt Romney could have been Gov. Romney, I think he could have done much better in Colorado,” said Melanson, who argued that attacks questioning Romney’s authentic positions on issues have been especially damaging in Colorado.
“Once that question gets in your head, you’ve lost a lot of Western voters,” he said.
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Republicans had been able to survive here in the past by rallying voters from outlying areas and winning over evangelical hotbeds like Colorado Springs. Those voters make up the base of the party here, and dominate the nominating process. But their support isn’t enough on its own to win a general election. Moreover, Romney hasn’t always excelled with those voters; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum upset Romney here during the Republican primary and laid bare Romney’s difficulties in winning that group.
Said one voter named Steve (who declined to give his last name), a property manager from Aurora who attended Romney’s rally Monday evening: “I find him milquetoast, like McCain. But I would vote for a milquetoast candidate over Obama any day because I am a conservative.”
In essence, the GOP’s broader woes – unforgiving demographic changes, skeptical moderates and a Republican base that demands ideological fealty – are laid bare in Colorado.
Whether Romney can reverse that slide, let alone accomplish such a herculean task in the next 35 days, is another question.
“There are three things in politics. There’s money, there’s message and there’s the messenger,” said Kerr. “Romney’s a good messenger; Obama’s a very good messenger.”
“So Romney’s got to work on his message,” he added.