Colorado exposes candidates' weaknesses
DENVER -- Look no further than Colorado if you want a picture of President Barack Obama's and Mitt Romney's vulnerabilities.
Four weeks before Election Day, few states are home to a more competitive or confusing race than the electoral battleground at the heart of the Mountain West. As much as any state in the country, Colorado is where the two candidates' weaknesses are on vivid display.
Here, Romney faces an intersecting set of his party's generational challenges: a leftward-moving consensus on social issues like gay rights, a Republican image problem with women voters in the critical Denver suburbs and a vast deficit with Hispanics who made up nearly 21 percent of Colorado's population in the 2010 census.
Obama, meanwhile, faces deep resistance from voters in the energy and defense sectors -- Lockheed Martin has a powerful presence here -- and skepticism from the moderate-leaning independent voters in places like the Denver suburbs of Jefferson County, who voted for him in 2008 and have drifted away since.
A University of Denver poll released over the weekend pegged the Colorado race at a 4-point contest: Obama 47 percent, Romney 43 percent. Republicans are privately more optimistic about their chances here. Asked why the GOP seems so upbeat about Colorado these days, one Romney adviser answered: "We're ahead."
But if Republicans are relatively upbeat about the state of the race, they also recognize that they are under greater pressure to win Colorado than the president. Should Obama win Ohio -- where he has consistently led -- and Colorado, then he would be nearly certain to cross the 270-electoral vote threshold for victory.
For Romney, capturing Colorado means tapping into the state's economic unease and long tradition of fiscal conservatism, without miring himself in divisive social-issue debates that have undercut state Republicans in recent cycles -- and likely cost Republican Ken Buck the 2010 Senate race.
At a rally with supporters here last week, Romney name-checked two longtime Colorado institutions: Denver Broncos legend John Elway and the social conservative group Focus on the Family. There's little question which Colorado icon Romney would rather be associated with in swing voters' minds.
"The state's getting more diverse. I think there is a generational shift that is mirrored nationally. Some of the issues that might have played to an older crowd are less appealing to younger folks, especially on the social front," said former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who helped lead Democrats back to power on the state level after a landslide defeat in 2002. "A Republican probably starts with a base vote of 45 [percent] and a Democrat starts with a base vote of 40 [percent] and you're fighting over the other 15."
Former Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez, a Romney surrogate who ran for governor in 2006, called the state "very winnable for Romney," while acknowledging that the Colorado electorate has been in a state of flux for several cycles now.
"We're not quite Wyoming or Utah or Idaho, but we've got a bit of that Western, independent, leave-us-alone streak in us that would naturally align more with somebody like a Romney," Beauprez said. "I think Colorado's a little bit more fickle right now, but I don't know if that's permanent."
Colorado and national Republicans are mostly inclined to think the state's new wobbliness is here to stay -- and some argue that it isn't even that new. Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Colorado sent split Senate delegations to Washington, putting famous liberals such as Tim Wirth and Gary Hart alongside staunch conservatives like Hank Brown and Bill Armstrong.
As recently as 2010, Coloradans voted in two new Republican members of Congress and gave the GOP control of several statewide offices and the state House. At the same time, Democrat John Hickenlooper won the governor's office and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet narrowly beat Buck, a strident conservative who alienated women and centrists in the final weeks of the race.
So depending on whom you ask, Colorado either looks like a state trending to the left, transformed by demographics into a colder, more mountainous version of New Mexico, or one that remains conservative at its core, where a range of quirky Democrats with independent brands -- from Hickenlooper to senior U.S. Sen. Mark Udall -- have managed to win in spite of their party.
Either way, there's no question that Colorado has at least grown more competitive on the presidential level. Colorado has only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate four times since World War II, with Obama's 9-point victory in 2008 being one of those occasions.
If the University of Denver poll showed a tight race between Obama and Romney, it also underscored why Colorado has become trickier ground for the GOP in recent years: The survey found that more than three-fifths of Coloradans favor a more liberal immigration policy, while a full 73 percent back either gay marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples. Half of likely voters support decriminalizing marijuana -- an issue on the November ballot in the form of a referendum.
Explained one senior Romney adviser: "Colorado is more like Virginia now than it is like Wyoming ... The Democrats have done a good job electorally there, but it is not a left-of-center state. It is still a nominally conservative state that will elect Republicans if given the opportunity."
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Democrat elected this year, disagreed that Colorado is a conservative state -- he's "very optimistic about the future," he said -- but said there are few illusions about Colorado as a liberal state in 2012.
"I think what you find, certainly, is a much more inclusive community that is more moderate -- dead center," Hancock said. "It's not about needing to be solidly blue. It's about having an opportunity for competition."
To state Republicans, numbers like those in the University of Denver poll look like a warning sign for the future -- an indication that whatever happens to Romney, the GOP faces significant challenges ahead.
"I think a successful Republican in Colorado is going to be somebody who's fiscally conservative and emphasizes those issues and not the social issues," said former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams. "The Hispanic population, I believe, will continue to increase and Republicans have got to do a better job in building Hispanic support."
Romney, Wadhams said, has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls of state Republicans, campaigning primarily on mainstream economic concerns: "He has not said things like Ken Buck said. [Democrats] are trying to replay 2010 and I don't think it's working."
Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, a former state legislative leader viewed as one of the GOP's premier up-and-comers in the state, agreed that state Republicans would have to seek out votes from a broader cross-section of the electorate to win in the future.
"You have a state that's seen tremendous immigration," Gardner said, referring both to Colorado's growing Latino population and an influx of other out-of-state voters. "It means you can't back away from any segment of the population. You can't be afraid to go into the inner city. You can't be afraid to address and share ideas with the Latino population. You can't be afraid to push on issues that people in Colorado have been reluctant to over the last decade."
The pervasive mood among Democrats, meanwhile, is one of cautious optimism, with an emphasis on the "cautious." While the party has made distinct gains over the last decade, there's also an acute awareness that Colorado politics could look very different after Nov. 6 if a few races tip the wrong way -- including an unexpectedly tough reelection fight for Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter.
If Republicans are working to reverse several cycles' worth of Democratic wins in top of the ticket races, Obama and his party are hoping to prove that they've made more durable gains. Democrats argue their victories haven't just been the product of the 2006 and 2008 wave elections, and some spectacularly bad Republican candidates in 2010. (Democrats "got every break they could get" that year, said the Romney adviser.)
Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, a leading funder of the Colorado Democratic comeback before winning a congressional seat himself in 2008, gave a cheerful prognosis for his party. He pointed to demographics as destiny for a state that looks more these days like Nevada or California than Wyoming or Utah.
"With these demographic trends, continued Californians who move to our state as well as the continued growth of the Latino population, I think demographically it becomes much more favorable to Democrats," Polis said. "Unless the Republican Party can completely reinvent itself and make itself more attractive to new immigrants and Latino voters ... That trend will continue to lead to the decline of the Republican Party in the Mountain West and Southwest."