If an optimistic Republican were to sit down and fiddle around with one of those adjustable online Electoral College maps, he would quickly realize that all best-case scenarios lead to Colorado. Barack Obama, after all, needs only to successfully defend the states John Kerry claimed and add Colorado for a victory (assuming New Mexico and Iowa hold for Obama as polls indicate). Denver wasn't chosen as the site of the Democratic National Convention for the skiing.
Still, despite widespread perceptions, Colorado has not been transformed into a blue state. Not yet. Not exactly. It's what one might call chromatically confused. A condition that is attributable to the irregular political positions of the state's rather peculiar inhabitants--a place where gun-toting border-first Democrats mingle with subsidy-loving environmentalist Republicans, and independents always rule the day.
With this murky political brew in place, a statewide candidate's only hope for victory these days, it seems, is a nimble ideological approach and a malleable sense of self. Many believed that the John McCain brand of maverick populism would play nicely in Colorado. But, as nearly everywhere else in the nation, events have altered the game.
To his credit, Barack Obama's prospective success in Colorado cannot be chalked up entirely to national events. The Democrat has rarely shown any inclination to understand western issues, yet his campaign has launched a commanding and sharp ground game here, with over 20 campaign offices statewide. The McCain camp offers nothing nearly as effective.
Obama, in many ways, is simply piggybacking on success. Since 2004, Colorado Democrats have--with the help of a trio of deep pockets that bolster progressive causes big and small--been able to snatch both houses of the legislature, the governorship, and one Senate seat. They don't deserve all the credit, of course. Pitiable leadership and factional wars between fiscal conservatives and moderate Republicans have critically eroded party unity.
Republicans may already be losing the presidential election. According to a recent study by the Denver Post, the GOP holds a 30,000-voter edge in requests for mail-in ballots. That sounds heartening until you realize that the overall voter-registration advantage for the party has fallen 60 percent since Bush won the state. Today, unaffiliated voters have become the state's most critical voting bloc, making up 34 percent of the 3 million registered voters, and most polls show them breaking for Obama.
Another problem for Republicans is demographics. Approximately 12 percent of Colorado voters are Latinos--the sixth-biggest Hispanic voting bloc in the nation. This is the state where Tom Tancredo is perhaps the most recognized Republican name. The most recent Quinnipiac University/Wall Street Journal poll, not surprisingly, shows Obama leading McCain in Colorado among Latino voters 68 percent to 26 percent.
The overriding question for any politician in Colorado is how to appeal to this motley ideological mix. Most practice a western brand of avoidance politics (sometimes confused with moderation). The most famous practitioners have been Democrats like Senator Ken Salazar and Governor Bill Ritter, elected officials whose main objective, it seems, is to avoid any appearance of a spine. If there is a gang to join in Washington, join it. If you can equivocate on a controversial issue, hedge like there's no tomorrow. If you can call forth a blue ribbon panel to delay vital decisions, order the doughnuts.
The newest subscriber to this methodology is Democratic congressman Mark Udall. Running for the Senate against a conservative Republican, former congressman Bob Schaffer, Udall has fended off his own liberal image, despite his long history of progressive representation for his district. (Colorado Republican chairman Dick Wadhams refused to utter Udall's name in public without prefixing it with the pejorative "Boulder liberal.") And polls have consistently shown a decent lead for the Democrat.
The general feeling among politicos is that Schaffer remains "too conservative for Colorado." Considering his positions are no more ideologically fringy than Udall's, this contention is perception rather than reality. Most likely the relentless barrage of attacks on "Big Oil Schaffer" and the floating of unsubstantiated accusations of corruption by a group of highly motivated leftwing groups have left their mark. Similar campaigns aimed at Udall by out-of-state groups have been far less successful.
Udall has displayed few qualms about customizing his positions to appeal to any audience that happens to be listening. He has taken U-turns on offshore drilling (literally inserting it into an existing commercial on energy) and nuclear power. He flipped and voted for a FISA bill that included retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies. He voted against the financial bailout (twice) and has newfound appreciation for the Second Amendment. While Salazar perfected the bolo-tied cowboy populist charmer shtick, Udall, a prodigy from a well-known political family, brings the newer template: the mountain-climbing, granola-crunching, wind-worn man of the West.
Schaffer has struggled to match this appeal. Meeting recently with the Denver Post editorial board (which endorsed Udall and of which I am a member), he contrasted himself with his opponent saying, "You always know where I stand on an issue." And, well, that's the problem. Voters' knowing where you stand doesn't get you elected.
Though it might be too late for Schaffer to mount a comeback against these forces, McCain needs a Colorado miracle to compete. The Centennial State has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 16 years, and then only with the help of Ross Perot. Colorado is a microcosm of the troubles Republicans face. The party has been unable to find top-notch candidates, generate grassroots enthusiasm, raise money, and deal with Colorado's changing demographics. A recent New Yorker article entitled "The Code of the West--What Barack Obama can learn from Bill Ritter" stated that party insiders "have decided growth for Democrats is more likely to occur in the conservative but idiosyncratic West than in the solidly Republican South."
How Republicans regain their footing and repel this strategy is still a mystery. They certainly haven't begun to do the job yet.
David Harsanyi of the Denver Post is a nationally syndicated columnist.