Colorado just might make a president

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - John McCain's fresh momentum is changing the contours of the presidential contest and making a close finish more likely than ever.

With the race a virtual dead heat in national polling, the presidency could, once again, be riding on the voters of a single state. In 2000, Florida was pivotal. Last time, it was Ohio. This fall, the place to watch may be out west.

Colorado could be the ultimate swing state of 2008.

Statewide polling puts it squarely in the tossup category. Frequent visits by both presidential tickets attest to the importance of winning there. But it's the electoral arithmetic that shows why Colorado could decide it all.

From Alaska to Georgia, Barack Obama appears to be abandoning plans to spread the playing field and put McCain on the defensive in traditionally Republican places. McCain never really took the bait. Now, Obama may be forced to devote a lot more resources to Democratic areas where Sarah Palin is reaching out to culturally conservative whites.

Instead of scrambling the colors on the election night map, '08 may reflect the same evenly divided country that produced two presidential nail-biters in a row. It's conceivable that nearly every state will wind up voting the same way it did last time.

Florida, for example, appears to be leaning to McCain, though Obama is spending millions in an effort to tilt it his way. Tossup states seem to be trending in the same direction they went in '04.

Other examples:

Michigan and Pennsylvania: These Democratic states resisted the Bush tide and are in play for McCain because of the Palin factor and Obama's difficulty in connecting with white working-class voters. Recent polling, however, suggests a slight Obama edge.

Ohio: This is a must-win for McCain and another tough state for Obama, because of resistance from blue-collar voters. Polls give McCain a slender advantage.

McCain, of course, would become president if he picked up every state Bush won last time. But Obama has a good chance to flip two of them back to the Democrats: Iowa and New Mexico. McCain, on the other hand, could set up the very real possibility of a 269-269 electoral college deadlock by taking New Hampshire back for the Republicans.

Expect to hear a lot more about that scenario if the race remains tight over the next month.

If Obama wins the states John Kerry carried in 2004, plus Iowa and New Mexico, it would give him 264 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. McCain, meantime, would have 265, with Colorado's nine electoral votes in the balance.

Whoever won Colorado under this set of circumstances would become president.

At the moment, "it's really sort of neck and neck," says Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver.

Republicans carried Colorado in every presidential election over the past 40 years, except 1992. But the state is realigning.

Democrats have taken control of the legislature and in 2006 captured the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat.

The new senator, Ken Salazar, became the chamber's first Hispanic Democrat in decades, a sign of the growing political power of the state's expanding Latino population. Affluent liberals are moving in from places like California, and Democrats have cut a 175,000-vote Republican registration advantage by more than half in recent years.

To highlight the shift, Democrats staged their national convention in Denver, and Obama's acceptance speech extravaganza at Mile High stadium was designed in part, aides said, to recruit thousands more grass-roots volunteers in the state.

McCain answered with Palin, an Idaho native who appears to be connecting with the region's voters.

"She's a gun-totin' Westerner. She's a frontier girl, and we have a lot of identification with the frontier," said Ciruli. "If she can capitalize on that, she might be a new influence in the race."

Republicans say Palin has already changed the mind-set in Colorado, a state McCain lost to Mitt Romney during primary season. Back then, evangelical Christian leader James C. Dobson declared that "I cannot, and I will not vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience." When Palin joined the ticket, Dobson endorsed McCain.

Dick Wadhams, a veteran campaign strategist who chairs the state Republican Party, said there was "an enthusiasm lag" among social and cultural conservatives that's been "totally obliterated by the addition of Palin."

Among Colorado Republicans, there's a new attitude of "we can win this thing," he said. "I think the Democrats were a little bit cocky and arrogant for their own good" about their chances.

Last weekend, fresh from the Republican convention, McCain and Palin starred at a large rally in Colorado Springs, which is Dobson's home base. This weekend, Palin is back in the state again.

Obama returns tomorrow, with events in Pueblo, a working-class city with a large Hispanic population, and in Grand Junction on the Western Slope.

That stop, in a conservative Republican area experiencing a surge in oil and gas drilling, suggests how the Democrats think Colorado can be won.

"If you want to whittle down, to some extent, the Republican advantage, you need to take 5,000 votes here, and 5,000 votes there," said Ciruli. Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist in Denver, says Obama is sending a signal that he won't repeat Kerry's mistake of ignoring rural areas and other, more conservative parts of the state. Stratton sees an opening for Obama to win but says neither side is likely to run away with it.

Colorado "is probably as close as any place in the country," he said. "This thing could be 50,000 votes one way or the other."

Republican Wadhams agrees that the race "will go down to the wire."

If it does, don't be surprised if some TV commentator, in the days leading up to the election, invokes the memory of the late NBC newsman Tim Russert and, grabbing an erasable whiteboard, scrawls in big, bold letters: "Colorado, Colorado, Colorado."

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