By Amie Parnes - 08/08/12 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama on Wednesday will travel to Colorado, a tragedy-stricken swing state he is determined to keep in his column.
While the shootings at a movie theater in a Denver suburb last month haven’t significantly altered the strategies or tenor of the campaign, Obama’s role as “consoler in chief” in Colorado could solidify his support in the state, observers say.
Even before the recent tragedy, “the fact that he has spent so much time here is no doubt going to work to his benefit,” said Floyd Ciruli, one of the state’s top independent pollsters.
“To the extent that he has an advantage here, the president reinforced it with his visits as the consoler in chief,” Ciruli said.
“President Obama has adopted Colorado as a special state for his presidency,” said Ciruli. “Colorado became a Democratic-leaning battleground just as Obama was coming into prominence. He held his national convention here, which was a tremendous success, and he’s really made the state a special focus of his attention.”
Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are both determined to win Colorado’s nine electoral votes. Obama captured the state by nine percentage points in 2008. President George W. Bush won Colorado in both 2000 and 2004.
Like Obama, Romney has logged a number of hours in Colorado, visiting with the victims of the wildfires in recent weeks while paying tribute to those suffering from the theater shooting. Both campaigns temporarily pulled negative ads in the state after the shootings.
In a speech on the campaign trail last week, Romney told the victims and the reeling community, “You’re in our hearts and you’re in our prayers.
“Let’s show them how united we are with the tragedy, how much we love them, how much we care about them,” Romney said.
While a series of recent polls have Obama ahead of Romney, a Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll released Wednesday found Romney topping the president 50 percent to 45 among likely voters in the state. A Rasmussen poll out on Tuesday had the presumptive GOP nominee tied with the president at 47 percent.
Adding to the president’s troubles: an unemployment rate in the state that hovers at 8.2 percent, as well as low approval ratings among voters focused on the economy.
While Obama is still up in most polls in the state, the Romney campaign is ramping up its ground game, according to GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who said the state is “ripe for the picking.”
“The Romney campaign is looking at Colorado as the place where the rubber meets the road,” O’Connell said. “They’re beefing up their field operation and they’re making a concerted effort to put the pieces in place.”
Kenneth Bickers, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the state isn’t a “gimme” for Obama.
“I think Colorado is very much in play,” Bickers said. “The president’s visit on Wednesday may break through some of the clutter, but I think he’s got a difficult path to come into Colorado and argue that he’s going to be good for the economy if he’s elected for a second term.”
To win the state for a second time, Bickers explained, Obama is going to need to energize two key demographics: Hispanics and young voters.
“I don’t see how he energizes the Hispanic vote, given how hard the economy has hit Hispanic households,” Bickers said. “And he’s going to need to persuade young voters too, and the economy has hit that group just as hard.”
Politics aside, one thing is certain: Both candidates have had to walk a fine line when it comes to dealing with the state’s recent tragedies.
Peter Burns, who lost his friend Jessica Ghawi in the theater shootings, met Obama at the hospital, when the president came to meet with victims and their families two days after the tragedy.
“I tend to lean conservative, but what I brought out of it was that his visit had zero to do with politics,” Burns said. “I expected a photo-op and hugs in front of the camera from the president. But what we witnessed was Obama the dad and the husband, not the president. He really set the tone from the moment he walked into the room.”
Burns, who said he is still an undecided voter, said the political tone in Colorado hasn’t changed despite the brief pause taken by both campaigns.
And while he is inundated with wall-to-wall political ads in the state, he would like to see some change from the candidates.
“I think there should be a lot less negativity,” he said. “I’d like to see the campaigns talking about the issues instead.”
This story was updated at 8:19 a.m.