The Sunday Take

For Obama, Democrats, Colorado Becomes Less Welcoming

By Dan Balz
Sunday, September 6, 2009

DENVER In 2008, Colorado became a symbol of the changing politics in a region once firmly in Republican hands -- and also of the grass-roots power and energy fueling Barack Obama's candidacy. Today, the state embodies the uneasiness spreading throughout Democratic ranks as Obama struggles with major challenges and the 2010 midterm elections approach.

Colorado has been one of the Democratic Party's major success stories. Between 1968 and 2004, Republican presidential candidates carried the state in all but one election. Last year, Obama crushed John McCain in Colorado, part of a broader shift in the balance of political power in the Rocky Mountain West.

Obama's victory and earlier Democratic wins here have transformed the state. Early in the decade, Republicans controlled virtually everything -- the governor's office, almost all other statewide offices, the congressional delegation and both houses of the Colorado legislature. Today, Democrats are in control of all of those.

A year ago, Denver enthusiastically hosted the Democratic National Convention, which culminated with Obama's acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Denver Broncos' football stadium. Legions of volunteers, young and old, fanned out across the state throughout the fall to rally the vote for Obama's campaign.

Today, the energy that powered Obama to victory has begun to dissipate. Some of his supporters remain on the sidelines; others are, if not disillusioned, questioning what has happened to his presidency. As they look toward 2010, Democrats are nervous. Gov. Bill Ritter, appointed Sen. Michael F. Bennet and at least one Democratic member of the House will probably face difficult election campaigns next year.

Roy Romer, a former Democratic governor, called the state of play "very much tougher" for Obama and the Democrats than it was a year ago. "The slippage is there, and it's because things are tough and solutions aren't easy, and they [voters] don't see progress toward solutions," he said.

"The political environment is tough for Democrats, tough for incumbents, tough for all politicians," Mike Stratton, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Denver, said a few days ago.

The Obama of 2008 seemed perfectly attuned to a state known for its youthfulness, future-oriented outlook and positive spirit. If he struggled at times with older voters in Rust Belt states, he always found a welcome in Colorado, easily defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic caucuses before cruising past McCain in the general election.

Today, Coloradans appear more downbeat. Anxiety has replaced optimism. The recession has changed habits and attitudes. Obama's agenda has raised questions among independent voters because of its ambitious scope and potential impact on the deficit. His style has left some original supporters concerned about his toughness.

Grass-roots organizers such as Jeff and Gale Haley, who volunteered for the Obama campaign last year and are now helping to organize support for health-care reform, say it is critical for Obama to take a harder line in his effort to pass a health-care bill. "I think he certainly realizes that if he loses on this one, that sets the tone for the rest of his administration," Jeff Haley said.

Bennet, who was touring northeastern Colorado last week, said: "We need to be able to demonstrate -- the administration needs to be able to demonstrate, people that are running for office need to be able to demonstrate -- that we're up to those challenges and that we're providing constructive policy solutions to meeting those challenges. If we can do that, we're going to be okay. If we can't do that, we're going to be overcome by the anxiety that's out there."

Bennet was the surprise pick to fill the Senate vacancy left when the president nominated Ken Salazar as interior secretary. Bennet came to the Senate with no experience in elective politics; when he was tapped, he was superintendent of the Denver school system. Before that, he was chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and had acquired private-sector experience with an investment company.

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