State: Colorado becomes key battleground for GOP in the West

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— Colorado glistened like a small gem among coals for Democrats in 2004, with two congressional wins and majority control of the state Legislature for the first time since John F. Kennedy was president.

Democrats are hoping Colorado shines even brighter this November.

Up for grabs is the governorship and two open House seats, with Democrats contending that they have a chance to make deeper inroads in a Western state that has been reliably Republican for years. Colorado backed President Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Bob Dole in 1996.

Washington's political scandals and deficit spending have driven some Colorado voters to the Democrats, while the perception of the Republican Party's increasing alignment with Christian evangelical ideology has turned off moderates, analysts say.

This weekend, the moderate Democratic Leadership Council holds its annual meeting in Denver, attracting a handful of potential 2008 presidential candidates such as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Govs. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

It was the DLC that helped propel the presidential bid of Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to capture Colorado, in 1992.

Colorado is "exactly the kind of red state we must win if we are to be returned to national power," said Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist group, who called the state "the capital of the New West."

Denver also is one of three cities, along with New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul, vying for the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

It won't be easy for Democrats this November. Bush won 45 of the state's 64 counties in 2004, as Republicans have enjoyed strong traditional support in rural areas and in Colorado Springs, home to several military installations, the Air Force Academy and Christian evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family.

Denver and Boulder stand as Democratic strongholds, with pockets of support in mountain resort areas.

Despite Bush's win, Colorado became something of a blueprint for many Democrats after the party's stunning gains in 2004. Democrat Ken Salazar captured an open Senate seat, his brother John won an open House seat and the majority Republican Legislature went Democratic.

The state Senate, once 18-17 Republican, is now 18-17 Democrat. The state House, once 37-28 Republican, is now 35-30 Democrat.

"Republicans in the most recent election cycle encountered challenges in Colorado," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "It is still very much a state that subscribes to a conservative ideology that offers opportunities."

This election year, Democrats hope to win the governorship -- Republican Gov. Bill Owens must step down due to term limits -- and at least one of two open House seats. The Democratic approach rests with appealing to the unaffiliated voters, who comprise 34 percent compared to 36 percent registered Republican and 30 percent registered Democrat.

"They believe the strategy is to win the swing voter, the suburban voter, the more independent voter, and they think that Colorado is a model for the West," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent political pollster in Denver.

Whether 2004 is an aberration or the start of a trend remains to be seen, argues Katy Atkinson, a GOP consultant in Denver. But she said the extremist wings of both parties are starting to grate on moderates while a perception of fiscal irresponsibility in the Bush administration and the GOP-led Congress are tainting views of state politics.

"All of a sudden, (Republicans) are faced with the prospect across the country with these people who have always voted Republican that are now paying some attention to what the Democrats have to say," Atkinson said. "They've gone from being a 75-percent-of-the-time Republican vote to maybe a 50-50."

In the governor's race, two-term Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez faces Democrat Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney who leads in recent polls. Ritter is seen as a moderate, a Catholic who opposes abortion but has said he would always support a woman's right to choose.

In the House race for the seat Beauprez is vacating, three Democrats are competing for the nomination in the Aug. 8 primary to determine who will challenge Republican Rick O'Donnell. The district is highly competitive, and Democratic Sen. John Kerry edged out Bush with 51 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election.

Reflecting the volatility of the race, Bush plans to travel to the state Friday to hold a fundraiser for O'Donnell.

In another House race, six Republicans are fighting for the nomination in the seat being vacated by 10-term Republican Rep. Joel Hefley. Democrats are pushing Air Force veteran Jay Fawcett in the Colorado Springs-area seat.

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