By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008
DENVER, Oct. 25 -- From the barrage of television ads to boots on the ground to the demographic and political forces changing the West, Colorado is a case study in the balance of power between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain in the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Colorado has been a red state in presidential races for four decades, save for 1992, when Bill Clinton carried it largely because independent candidate Ross Perot drained votes away from George H.W. Bush. Obama, who will campaign here Sunday, is determined to end the Republican winning streak with a victory that could go a long way toward putting him in the White House. McCain, who made three stops in the state on Friday, is just as determined to deny Obama that victory.
The conservative forces backing McCain here are energized, and he counts on a get-out-the-vote operation that historically has ranked as one of the Republican Party's top three or four in the nation. But McCain faces an opponent who, with a huge financial war chest, an army of volunteer activists and an aggressive game plan, has put together a campaign that Democratic officials in the state say is superior to anything they have ever seen on their side.
Obama has more than 50 offices in Colorado, McCain about a dozen. On Election Day, there may be as many as 100 sites around the state from which the voter turnout operation will be directed. Obama officials will not say how many paid staffers they have in the state, but one knowledgeable Democratic strategist said privately that the number approaches 400.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who picked off a Republican-held district in the Democratic sweep two years ago and is eyeing an easy reelection campaign, said the Obama effort is impressive for its "scale and consistency and persistency," adding: "They're just touching everybody and anybody."
"I've never seen a ground game like Barack Obama's," Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said.
Republicans here give Obama credit for the size of the operation he has put together but argue that with the benefit of experience on their side, they are better equipped to compete in the battle to mobilize and turn out voters -- though they concede that McCain is running in one of the worst environments Republicans have seen in decades.
"To compare the two [campaigns], it's the best we've ever had in Colorado and it's as good as they've got," said Dick Wadhams, the state Republican Party chairman. "If this came down to a one- or two-point race, we could win that race. The question is whether that headwind is so strong."
The headwind Wadhams described reflects public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, coupled with the massive resources advantage Obama enjoys here. That has given Obama the edge heading into the final week. When McCain arrived here Thursday night, one top adviser sat watching television out of the corner of his eye and quickly saw the imbalance. Within an hour, half a dozen Obama ads aired, but none for his candidate.
McCain recently scaled back his television buy in Colorado for the final days of the campaign, as he seeks to spread his more limited resources around at least half a dozen states where he is trailing and where he must win to have a chance of reaching 270 electoral votes. The Denver Post estimated that, over the final stretch of the campaign, Obama will outspend McCain by about 7 to 1 on television ads in the Denver area.
Overall, Obama has spent $8.5 million on ads in Colorado during the general election, compared with $7.9 million for McCain. In the past week, Obama spent $838,000 to McCain's $531,000, according to figures compiled by Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Tracey said that while McCain outspent Obama before the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Denver in late August, Obama has spent more since then.
Obama also hopes to benefit from a changing electorate in Colorado and other states in the Mountain West -- one reason Democrats think they will pick up New Mexico and will have a chance of winning Nevada.
Below the level of presidential races, Democrats have made steady progress in recent elections. Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, captured the governorship from Republicans two years ago, and Democrats control both houses of the state legislature.
Democrats already hold one Se nate seat and are overwhelmingly favored to pick up the open seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Wayne Allard. In a sign of how the race between Democratic Rep. Mark Udall and former Republican congressman Bob Schaffer is trending, the National Republican Senatorial Committee decided late last week to pull out of the race.
In the House, Democrats picked up the swing 7th Congressional District two years ago and are battling to add the seat in the 4th Congressional District, held by embattled Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave.
Changes in party registration underscore the shifting fortunes of the two parties. Four years ago, when President Bush was winning the state over Sen. John F. Kerry by 52 percent to 47 percent, registered Republicans outnumbered registered Democrats by 177,500 voters. The latest figures from the Colorado secretary of state's office show that the gap has been narrowed to 11,416 voters. Unaffiliated voters, a key Obama target, make up about a third of the electorate.
Some of these shifts represent organic changes brought on by the arrival of new voters from other states and a growing Latino population. But the Obama campaign systematically worked to expand the electorate, devoting much of the summer here to registration drives that have clearly paid dividends.
The campaign trained volunteers for registration duty and sent them into areas likely to produce new Democratic voters: college campuses, Latino communities, African American neighborhoods and areas with younger voters. Today, there are more registered voters younger than 30 than there are older than 61, according to figures compiled by the secretary of state's office.
"We started registering voters as soon as we hit the ground," said Anne Filipic, the general-election director for Obama's Colorado operation. "That was a big focus of ours throughout the summer."
Beyond that, the Obama campaign sought to neutralize the GOP's historic advantage in the use of mail-in, early and absentee voting. Four years ago, nearly half the state's voters cast their ballots before Election Day, with Republicans far outpacing Democrats. This year, as much as 60 percent of the state could vote early.
On Friday, Obama's campaign reported that it is running about even with the Republicans in mail-in ballots returned. If current patterns hold, McCain would have to win decisively among those who cast their votes on Nov. 4 to win the state, a difficult proposition based on Republicans' past performance here.
Both campaigns are competing hard. In addition to the McCain and Obama visits this weekend, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, campaigned in the state last week and drew big crowds. Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., was here a few days later. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton held an Obama rally late Friday, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) was here Saturday.
McCain's headquarters in Centennial pulsated with energy Thursday afternoon, filled with young mothers making phone calls on behalf of the campaign. Palin has helped motivate the base, and GOP strategists here say voters in Colorado are decidedly more conservative than Obama in their views on social and economic issues.
Craig Goldman, the McCain regional campaign manager who oversees Colorado, said he has confidence in the GOP operation that has delivered in the past. "It's a proven commodity," he said. "It happened in 2000. It happened in '04. We know it can happen in '08. We know who our voters are. It's our job to turn them out."
Republicans have surprised Democrats in the closing days of past elections, one reason Obama campaign officials and their Democratic allies are taking nothing for granted. But McCain is fighting not only against the burden of an unpopular president and reaction to the economic meltdown but also against an opponent with overwhelming resources. Democrats hope that combination will complete the political transformation of this state.