The Democratic National Convention won’t exactly be in friendly territory when the curtain rises in Denver on Monday. Colorado is one of the hottest battleground states in the country, and as pundits point to the West as a critical region for the next president to win, the Centennial State, with its nine Electoral College votes, is rising to the top of the list.
“Colorado is the ‘it’ state,” says James Pindell, managing editor of Politicker.com.
“My advice would be that as Democrats gather at the national convention, they shouldn’t be asking where the best parties are, but where the local phone banks are,” Pindell says. “This is an absolute battleground. If they want to help Barack Obama, they should spend some time on the campaign trail.”
His Pindell Report, a product of the wonky Web site, has upgraded Colorado from “leans Democratic” to a “toss up,” as the state climbed to the No. 3 most-competitive race in the country, up from the No. 5 spot.
The ranking puts Colorado behind Virginia and fellow Western state Nevada, which holds the No. 1 slot. A Nevada poll announced on Friday found Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama in a statistical dead heat. New Mexico holds the No. 5 slot.
The news is the same in Colorado, where polls show the two running neck-and-neck. In June, Obama was leading by five points. A month later, McCain was leading by two. A more recent Rocky Mountain News/CBS4 News poll found McCain leading 44 percent to 41 percent.
“It’s a heck of a horse race in Colorado,” pollster Lori Weigel told the Rocky. “We’re officially a purple state now.”
The tight race comes despite major Democratic gains in Colorado in recent years. In 2006, Democrats won the governor’s seat, gained seats in the congressional delegation and took majorities in both state houses. Despite a shift to the left in recent years, Pindell says, “there’s no doubt that Colorado has become more competitive in the last month and a half.”
The intense battle has had both Obama and McCain’s camps devoting ample airtime to win over Colorado voters. McCain has made two trips to the state within a month, mostly for low-key fund-raisers among supporters, and to meet and pose for pictures with the visiting Dalai Lama. His latest stop included time to shoot a campaign ad outside Aspen.
His campaign has recently fired off ads aimed at Hispanics in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Obama’s campaign this week criticized McCain’s tax plan in an ad targeted to Colorado and seven other battleground states. The American Leadership Project, a pro-Hillary Clinton group, is launching Colorado ads during the convention attacking McCain for his energy policies.
Add to Colorado’s heat over the presidential race one of the most hotly-contested Senate races. With Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican, stepping down, it opens up one of the most up-for-grabs Senate races. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat and part of the prominent Udall family of Western politicians, is vying for the seat, as is Rep. Bob Schaeffer, a Republican.
Recent polls show those two running neck-and-neck, too, with Schaeffer erasing a strong early lead by Udall. Pindell lists that race as the No. 2 Senate race in the country, behind the battle for the seat held by Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
The latest poll shows Obama leading in Democratic Denver, but trailing on the more conservative Western Slope. McCain is stronger in the southern suburbs (think Colorado Springs conservatives), while Obama is stronger in the north (Boulder liberals).
As Democrats prepare to converge in Denver, Obama supporters remain upbeat about his chances, not only in Colorado but across the region. In recent days, Centennial State Democrats have been jumping over McCain’s suggestion that the Colorado River Compact, which divvies up water between Western states, ought to be renegotiated. It’s an idea that doesn’t play well in Colorado, which fears it will lose more water to booming downstream desert states.
“I think the opportunities for Barack Obama in the mountain West are enormous and it’s likely to make the difference for him,” says Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club, which has endorsed Obama. “You start adding up Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada as the most doable. That makes a big difference.”