Colorado is Mitt Romney’s safety valve. If he falters in the East​—​losing, say, Ohio​—​Colorado is the key to offsetting that defeat and still winning Romney 270 electoral votes. In fact, as the presidential race now stands, Romney probably won’t be sitting in the White House next January unless he does win Colorado.

Romney ought to capture Colorado. There are 97,954 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state. In 2010, Republicans won two House seats, gained control of the state house of representatives, and ousted two statewide Democratic officials for the first time since 1974. If Republicans hadn’t botched the elections for governor and senator, Colorado would be seen today as rich GOP soil.

Romney polls well here, relatively speaking. The Denver Post is outlandishly pro-Obama, but its poll in mid-September gave the president only a one-point lead, 47-46 percent. Republicans were thrilled, especially with the gender gap shrinking to 6 percentage points. Rasmussen polled here last week and found Romney ahead, 47-45 percent. Other polls put Obama in the lead by up to 5 percentage points.

Best of all for Republicans, they seem to have overcome their death wish. They ruled Colorado in the 1990s and into the 2000s, then lost their way as Democrats put together a sophisticated election machine and seized control. An example of the reversal: Bush won Colorado in 2004 by almost 5 percentage points, Obama won by 9 in 2008. Meanwhile, Republicans specialized in bickering.

In 2010, Weld County prosecutor Ken Buck was headed to victory in the Senate race until he likened homosexuality to alcoholism during an appearance on Meet the Press. Democrats pounced on him as “extreme” and he lost by 30,000 votes. In the governor’s campaign, the Republican nominee, Scott McInness, was forced to drop out after it was discovered he had collected $300,000 for a plagiarized report. Democrat John Hickenlooper waltzed to victory.

As if hexed by the GOP’s misfortunes, Romney got off to a slow start here. He won the presidential caucuses in 2008 with 60 percent of the vote, but got only 35 percent this year and lost to Rick Santorum. After locking up the nomination this spring, he stayed away from Colorado for more than seven weeks​—​until scheduling two days of campaigning this week.

Richard Beeson, Romney’s national political director and a Colorado native, says the need for fundraising kept the candidate away. “We’ve got to keep up with this Obama money machine,” he told me. As excuses go, that’s a pretty lame one.

Obama has already devoted 10 days to campaigning in Colorado this year. He brought Sandra Fluke, the law student famous for demanding free contraceptives, with him to Denver in August. His air war of TV ads was unleashed in early spring. “He practically lives in Colorado,” says Floyd Ciruli, a widely respected Denver pollster. But Colorado turns out to be “the weakest link in his strategy” for winning battleground states, according to Ciruli.

One reason is that the strategy is a clone of Democratic senator Michael Bennet’s campaign against Buck. It’s heavy on abortion and social issues and attaches the word “extreme” to Romney. In Colorado, “that’s the magic word to call your opponent,” Ciruli says. “Obama does it all the time.”

His latest ad features a woman named Jenny, who says “it’s a scary time to be a woman,” what with Romney being “so out of touch.” An announcer adds, “Mitt Romney opposes requiring insurance coverage for contraception. And Romney supports overturning Roe v. Wade. Romney backed a bill that outlaws all abortion, even in case of rape and incest.”

Yet neither Obama’s ubiquitous ads nor his frequent appearances​—​most recently at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University​—​have revived the enthusiasm Obama generated in 2008. “There really was a Beatles phenomenon going on,” says John Andrews, the director of the conservative Centennial Institute.

Obama has lost his luster as Colorado has returned to normal. It’s basically a conservative state, western-style. The most prominent fiscal conservative is Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor who is believed to be eyeing a run for president in 2016. There are lots of libertarians and “unaffiliated” voters, many of them women, and lots of evangelical Christians.

“This is a very winnable state” for Romney, says Jon Caldara, president of the influential Independence Institute. Many Coloradans “want to vote against Obama, but Romney hasn’t made the sale yet,” says consultant Dick Wadhams, a former state GOP chairman.

To attract them, Romney must triumph in the first debate with Obama on October 3. This is because of the peculiar system of voting in Colorado. Three weeks before the election, ballots are mailed to 70 percent of voters, and early voting at polling stations begins on October 22. Only 15 percent of voters may be left to show up on November 6.

Which candidate this helps is anybody’s guess. But both campaigns have organized vast efforts to contact voters. Romney sent his national field director, James Garcia, to run the voter drive in Colorado. By all accounts, he’s built a strong team.

What does it take for Romney to win? Citing the Denver Post poll, Andrews notes that Romney leads by 6 percentage points outside metro Denver. “Keep the metro close and we win,” he says. “The poll shows Obama leads with seniors, but do you believe that will hold? I don’t. There is a lot of work to do, but ‘red state recapture’ is within reach.”

Nationally, Colorado fits the so-called 3-2-1 scenario: If Romney wins Indiana (11 electoral votes), North Carolina (15), and Virginia (13), plus Florida (29) and Ohio (18), he’ll need but one more state, any state. Colorado (9) would do. This assumes Romney captures all the states John McCain won in 2008, which is likely.

Or Colorado could be the linchpin of the offset scenario, making up for a lost state in the East. Should Ohio go to Obama, Colorado plus Nevada (6) and New Mexico (5) would do the trick for Romney. Variations of this scheme would work too. But if Romney loses two or three or more of those eastern states, you can forget Colorado, while bracing yourself for Obama’s second term.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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