High drama in fight for Colorado

Mitt Romney speaks to a conservative conference in Denver the day after the debate as four of his sons listen.
Mitt Romney speaks to a conservative conference in Denver the day after the debate as four of his sons listen. (JUSTIN SULLIVAN / Getty Images)

The state, once reliably red but now among the most purple, seemed to be even tighter after the debate.

Posted: October 08, 2012

GOLDEN, Colo. - Maria Matos was serving the afternoon crowd at the counter in Bob's Atomic Burgers, calling out orders by the names of famous people and cartoon characters each customer was assigned.

Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman, Flash Gordon, and George Bush each got juicy fried burgers on buttered toasted buns.

During a lull, Matos talked about the previous night's presidential debate in Denver, which she watched on television, fretting about how flat President Obama seemed to her.

"He's got to get more proactive," she said, though she still vows to vote for him. "I used to love him - now I just like him. But I trust him more than the opponent, because he has the right intentions."

Matos, 39, may be among the most coveted voters in the battle between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney for Colorado's nine electoral votes. A college-educated Hispanic woman and a registered independent, she is part of the demographic forces that have transformed the state from reliably red to competitive in recent presidential elections.

The race here has grown even tighter lately than in famous swing states like Ohio. The Real Clear Politics polling aggregator has Obama ahead in Colorado by an average of just half a percentage point, well within the margin of error of the surveys used to compile it. His lead was wider before the debate.

Denver was the most saturated media market in the nation over the last three weeks of September, with 7,770 presidential campaign ads airing there, according to tracking data from Kantar/CMAG that was analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project. Colorado Springs was 11th busiest, with 4,878 ads during that period. Even tiny Grand Junction, on the state's western slope, was 12th, with 4,661 spots.

Hillary Hutson, a Romney supporter from Golden, agrees with his contention that too many people are dependent on the government.

"I want to pay my own way, I don't want the government in my life," said Hutson, 62, a registered Republican who works for a veterans' service agency. "After a while, you run out of other people's money and you have to take care of yourself."

Hutson worries about the swelling national debt, believing it threatens America's freedom because so many of the loans are held by foreign powers, notably China.

"I have a low-paying job, but I save and live within my means," she said. "The federal government should, too. We're giving China too much power. We've got to get a handle on the debt and make America strong again."

Except in 1992, when Bill Clinton won a plurality of its votes in a three-way race, Colorado had gone Republican in every presidential election since 1968. Until 2008, that is - when Obama carried the state by nine points.

Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, said the main reason for the state's recent political competitiveness is "migration of people from Democratic areas of the country" over the past three decades. "Colorado has grown a lot," he said.

The Hispanic factor

In addition, the state's Hispanic population has more than doubled since 1990, to about 20 percent of the total. Educational attainment has also risen. In 1990, 27 percent of Coloradans had bachelor's degrees or better; by 2008, that share was 36 percent.

Both Hispanics and college-educated people were key parts of Obama's winning coalition. This year, too, he hopes to maximize Latino turnout here and elsewhere, taking advantage of deep support from the nation's fastest-growing minority group, in which polls show him leading Romney by better than 2-1. Hispanic voters could hold the balance of power in Colorado and several other closely contested states, such as Nevada and even North Carolina.

But Colorado has had its share of economic knocks, and it remains unclear whether Obama supporters are as enthusiastic this time.

It's no accident that Obama signed the stimulus into law in Colorado and that his party's 2008 convention was held in Denver. The state has turned purple, at least for now, as have Nevada and New Mexico.

"It's because we're a microcosm of American in a post- partisan world," said Jill Hanauer, a Democratic strategist who heads Project New America, a research group that aims to help the party succeed in traditionally Republican environments, such as the intermountain West. "In Colorado, we're younger, we're more Latino, and we're electing a new brand of pragmatic Western leaders."

Even while trending Republican in presidential races, Colorado has elected moderate, pragmatic Democratic governors and senators.

"There's a strong streak of Western independence," Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is a native of Narberth, said in an interview. "Voters respond to the person more than the policy or the party."

In 2004, Democrats captured the state legislature for the first time in 30 years, an effort Hanauer helped lead. And the model for Obama's approach is Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) - who was reelected in 2010 despite that year's GOP wave by portraying his opponent as an extremist on social issues and immigration.

Bennet assembled a coalition that included affluent college graduates, moderate Republican women, and Latinos angry at the GOP stance on immigration.

The Obama campaign and allied groups are airing tons of ads in the Denver market hitting Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, for supporting an end to abortion rights, opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and pledging to repeal Obama's health-care law, which mandates that insurers cover preventive care for women.

"I think Republicans are in a pickle, between what voters want and the ideology of their base," Hanauer said.

Not so, says Ryan Call, the state GOP chairman. "Democrats are using scare tactics, but women know the economy is lagging and the price of gasoline has doubled in four years," he said.

The state's population has boomed most in Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties, the Denver suburbs, with subdivisions, roadways, and big-box stores sprawling into the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Arapahoe, east and south of the city, has doubled in population since 1980, to 600,000. Jefferson, the western side of the Denver metroplex, has about a half-million people and has grown nearly as fast. Together, they are home to about a quarter of Colorado's electorate.

Both parties' campaigns have focused on those counties, the territory where statewide elections are won or lost.

Burgers in a bellwether

Golden - its air suffused with the tang of hops and the sweet perfume of malt from the massive Coors brewery - lies in Jefferson County, considered a bellwether, its vote most closely mirroring the state as a whole.

Obama and Romney have both visited "Jeffco," and the Republican's state headquarters is in Lakewood, the biggest city in the county. It is the home base of Tom Tancredo, the conservative former congressman who built his career railing against illegal immigration and briefly ran for president four years ago.

Yet Jefferson County went for Obama by the same 9 percent margin as the state.

"I don't believe the government needs to get in the business of people's personal choices," Matos said of Romney's opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

She likes Obama's emphasis on lowering the costs for student loans; she is working toward a master's in education even as she serves burgers.

Bob's Atomic Burgers, in a retro former laundromat, was the dream of Robert Toohill, 48, a carpenter who saw his income decline and his benefits disappear as construction work was killing his back.

He and his wife, Jen, bought the building in January and renovated, with help from electrician and plumber friends. Bob's opened in July to a steady stream of customers - it is across from the Coors brewery visitors' center, the second-biggest tourist draw in the state, and caters to students from the Colorado School of Mines up the street.

In other words, Toohill built that.

As a small businessman, he might be expected to warm to Romney's message about cutting regulations and taxes. But Toohill said he understood he did not make it this far on his own.

"How can you take a guy seriously when he flip-flops so much?" Toohill, a registered Democrat and transplant from Wisconsin, said of Romney. "From pro-life to pro-choice, from favoring gay rights to opposing. . . . Ten years ago he was a completely different person."

Still, for all anyone knows, Obama's narrow lead in polls here may be gone in the wake of the debate. A survey taken Thursday and Friday showed Romney gaining.

At a Denver rally Monday, a hoarse Romney pleaded with the thousands in attendance: "Go out and find one Obama supporter - or maybe two or three or four or five - and convince them to join our team."

It looks as if it's going to be that kind of an election.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-313-3099 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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