Candidates Running Closest In the West

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

DENVER -- On Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination here before a crowd of around 70,000, a figure with resonance in the Mountain West: Had Sen. John F. Kerry flipped that number of votes combined in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in 2004, he would have been president.

Four years later, nowhere in the country is the race so close as in this region. Most polls show Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, tied in Colorado and Nevada, Obama up a little in New Mexico and McCain with a small lead in Montana.

And nowhere is the electorate as much in flux as it is across the Mountain West, by far the fastest-growing region in the nation, with millions of new residents coming for fresh starts, better jobs and stunning vistas -- and bringing loose political affiliations. In Colorado, nearly half of those who have moved from elsewhere in the United States since 2000 have come from Democratic-leaning California, yet the biggest jump in registrations has been among the "unaffiliated," who in June surpassed Republicans as the largest political category.

The Obama campaign sees signs that many of the new arrivals are inclined its way. In Colorado, for instance, a disproportionate share of new residents are Hispanics or whites with college degrees, both groups that tilt Democratic, while the share of working-class white voters has fallen.

Recent statewide elections offer further signs of a shift. Democrats hold the majority of U.S. House seats from Colorado and are favored to win the state's second Senate seat this fall. In Montana, Democrats hold both Senate seats and the governor's office. Even in Arizona, where Democrats face a bigger gap because it is McCain's home state, the party picked up two House seats in 2006. Polls show Obama trailing there by 10 points or less.

"It didn't used to be this way," said Federico Peña, who served in the Colorado legislature before becoming mayor of Denver and both secretary of energy and secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration. "The unaffiliated voter has shifted, and we've seen it throughout the West."

The shift may also be a product of a landscape created by rampant growth. A common East Coast misperception is that the West is a land of wide-open spaces, with houses scattered hither and yon. In fact, because of the constraints of topography, water resources and land rights, the West's development is relatively compact -- Denver is more densely settled than Boston. Political science holds that the more densely settled an area, the more Democratic it tends to be.

"As people move into an area, they need more services, and there are more urban-type needs and problems," said Ruy Teixeira, co-author of a new Brookings Institution report on the region. "There's a little less of this 'Just leave me alone' stuff."

One of the region's few Republican governors, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, agreed, saying Western voters "are demanding different things today."

"Before, it was just 'Don't tread on me,' and strong on the Second Amendment. Now, it's quality of life, schools, human services. You've seen a change in focus, and Republicans are going to have to adapt," he said.

Still, McCain maintains many advantages. Colorado has the religious-conservative hub of Colorado Springs, as well as a large military population centered on the Air Force. The candidate's call for offshore oil drilling is popular with many Western residents who drive long distances and worry little about the impact on faraway coastal states. And, of course, McCain has represented Arizona for 26 years.

But Democrats say that carries relatively little weight, given that he is not a native Westerner and that a large proportion of people in the region are themselves not Westerners by birth. "He's really a Washington, D.C., guy. That's where he's spent the bulk of his time," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). "I don't know that he carries the same Western brand that some candidates do."

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