By Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis - 05/24/12 12:40 AM EDT
President Obama on Wednesday swept through Colorado, where he faces serious headwinds in his effort to retain an evenly split battleground state that went Republican in 2000 and 2004 but heavily supported the president’s 2008 campaign.
The conventional wisdom since then has been that the ever-rising Hispanic population in Colorado has made it more likely that Obama can keep its nine electoral votes in his column. But political observers say Colorado is very much in play given the state’s slight rise in unemployment last month and Obama’s low approval ratings among voters focused on the economy.
The state is not the same one Obama encountered in 2008, when Coloradans lined the streets for miles to witness the presidential candidate accept the Democratic nomination. Nor is it the same state Obama used as a backdrop to sign the stimulus bill into law just after taking office in 2009.
“It’s as absolutely split as a state can be, which is why you can’t turn around without bumping into the president and his motorcade,” said Kenneth Bickers, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Either candidate can win and either candidate can lose.”
Obama’s frequent trips to Colorado highlight its importance to his campaign. If he can sweep the three Mountain West states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado that he won in 2008, plus hold on to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa and New Hampshire, he can lose Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida and still defeat likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the electoral vote.
Even GOP strategists acknowledge Obama’s advantage in the ground game.
“The Democrats have run a superior ground game,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, pointing to the 2010 Senate match-up between Ken Buck and Michael Bennet. “Over the last decade, the Democrats have really improved their ground game, and if you have a well-executed ground game, you can win.”
O’Connell also acknowledged that the surge in Hispanic voters could make it increasingly difficult for Romney to win the state. “It’s obviously a toss-up state, but the terrain out there makes it difficult for him to succeed.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said Bennet was successful largely by contrasting his liberal positions on social issues like abortion against those of the conservative Buck. Obama can build on that strategy, DeGette said, arguing that her constituents are much closer to Obama than Romney on issues like birth control, the Violence Against Women Act — which is stalled in Congress over GOP objections to its scope — and gay marriage, which Obama endorsed earlier in the month.
“The president is in sync with the voters of Colorado on that,” DeGette said. “[He] would really do well to talk about those issues here.”
Obama has targeted key demographics during his recent appearances. On Wednesday, he delivered the commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, in a nod to the military vote. And later in the day, he traveled to Denver, where he appeared at a fundraiser surrounded by DeGette, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock. Outside the fundraiser, he was met with signs reading, “Out of Hope, Ready for Change” and “Obama’s Boulevard of Broken Promises.”
Last fall, Obama chose to promote a jobs bill at a Denver high school with a high Hispanic population. And in April, the president visited Boulder’s campus to court the youth vote when he urged Congress to pass a student-loan extension.
Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist based in Colorado, said the demographics in the state are on Obama’s side, with the recent increase in Latinos and his support among women. “Both of those factors give him an advantage,” she said, adding that people are “increasingly optimistic.”
But the Romney campaign is also making a major play for the state, with the campaign training hundreds of volunteers to conduct voter-registration drives, a campaign aide said.
“Mitt Romney is committed to getting Americans back to work and has run a campaign focused on policies that will grow the economy and create jobs,” said Sarah Pompei, a Romney spokeswoman. “President Obama hasn’t lived up to the promises of his 2008 campaign and Americans expected more. Under President Obama, more people have lost their jobs than at any time since the Great Depression.
“We are confident that voters in Colorado and across the country are responding to Mitt Romney’s pro-jobs message and will make Barack Obama a one-term president.”
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) agreed. The Fort Collins conservative said the enthusiasm surrounding Obama has waned noticeably since 2008, when the Democrats staged their convention at Denver’s Mile High Stadium and the state’s university campuses were alive with Obama’s themes of hope and change.
“Those don’t seem to exist this time around,” he said.
Gardner also noted that Colorado’s unemployment rate — though lower than the national average of 8.1 percent — rose to 7.9 percent last month, and accused Obama of breaking his promise to create jobs.
Romney, Gardner argued, “has real-world business experience” that Obama lacks, a reference to the former governor’s successful run atop Bain Capital, a private-equity firm.
Gardner conceded that Romney, who lost Colorado’s caucuses to Rick Santorum, has “a lot of work” to do between now and November to swing the state to the Republicans, but said he’s certain the former Massachusetts governor will prevail.
“I absolutely think Romney can take it,” he said. “Colorado is a state that’s not set in its ways. It will change.”