COLORADO SPRINGS — This conservative enclave at the foot of the Rocky Mountains should be a stronghold for the Republican presidential nominee, with its robust military presence and strong evangelical Christian tradition.
But even as Donald Trump swept into the city Friday for a boisterous rally, he was being eyed warily by voters such as Kathy Colligan, a Republican-leaning independent who is far from sold on the billionaire real estate developer.
“I just don’t really like him personally,” said Colligan, a 53-year-old nurse, as she headed into a Home Depot shortly before Trump was scheduled to speak across town. “He’s kind of arrogant and privileged. And he doesn’t have a lot of information backing up what he says.”
Conversations with more than two dozen voters here revealed a widespread ambivalence about Trump, underscoring the difficult climb he faces in turning this state red after it backed Barack Obama in the past two presidential elections.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had a strong lead over him in three separate Colorado polls taken earlier this month — and not only because of her support among Latinos, who make up about 1 in 7 eligible voters. Clinton also held an edge among white voters, whom 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won by 10 points four years ago.
In a sign of confidence, Clinton is ratcheting down her investments on the air here: This week, her campaign ended a statewide television buy that began in mid-June.
Meanwhile, Trump, who just hired a Colorado state director at the end of June, is suddenly lavishing the state with a flurry of attention, hitting both Colorado Springs and Denver on Friday. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, is scheduled to hold events in the same cities on Wednesday.
“There is no reason we shouldn’t win this state. Heavy military and tremendous respect for law and order,” Trump declared Friday afternoon at a rally at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He promised to make multiple visits before Election Day. “We want law and order. We want a great military. We want our vets to be so happy.”
Yet there is lingering antipathy toward him among Colorado’s conservatives, who helped Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) sweep the GOP caucuses earlier in the year — a process that Trump declared was “rigged.” The tension spilled out at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Colorado delegates were some of the staunchest members of the “Never Trump” movement.
“I have no intention of voting for him,” said Steven Hofman, a longtime GOP activist from Steamboat Springs who sought to be a Cruz delegate. “I don’t think we should elect somebody to the Oval Office who takes his ignorance of public policy as a virtue.”
Such views have contributed to Trump’s soft standing among white voters in the state: He trailed Clinton by between five and six percentage points among them in the three latest Colorado surveys. An NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll found Trump holding a modest 11-point edge among whites without college degrees, his base constituency, which was neutralized by Clinton’s 19-point lead among college-educated whites.
It’s not just conservatives and white voters whom Trump needs to persuade. Republicans make up only about one-third of Colorado’s electorate, with Democrats and unaffiliated voters each roughly the other thirds.
“You cannot win Colorado with just Republican voters,” said GOP strategist Dick Wadhams, a former state party chairman. “That’s just the brutal truth of it. The fact is that even after Donald Trump solidifies the Republican base, which I believe he will do, he still has to find a way to move numbers among suburban women and somehow not get blown away among Hispanic voters.”
Wadhams, who is supporting Trump, said the candidate needs to broaden his appeal. “He cannot do that with inflammatory language,” he said.
Indeed, the provocative comments Trump has made about immigrants, Muslims and women were top of mind for many voters here.
“I think he needs to be quieter, not be saying so many things that just pop out of his mouth,” said Cheryl Lafon, 58, a registered Republican who said she prefers Trump over Clinton but remains undecided.
As Manie Balch contemplated voting for Trump, she shuddered. “I think he’s wild,” the self-described senior citizen and Republican said as she left a Panera Bread restaurant with her family. “I don’t think he’s balanced. Maybe I’ll do a write-in candidate.”
Even some Trump supporters expressed worry about his intemperate nature.
“I am a little scared of him,” said Don Monn, 78, a retired chemist. “He’s just so reactive. Hopefully, he will put good people around him, and they will be able to calm him down and say, ‘Just because somebody tweeted something about you, don’t go off and start a war.’ ”
Trump did little publicly to assuage those concerns Friday. At his rally in Colorado Springs, he revived a full year’s worth of controversies, seeking to pin the blame for them on the news media.
A different candidate was on display afterward at a private fundraiser hosted by wealthy Denver donor Larry Mizel, where Trump had a thoughtful conversation about energy and jobs, according to Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House, who was in attendance.
House said his internal data shows the presidential horse race is “very close” in the state, noting the huge turnout in Colorado Springs, where Trump’s supporters waited in a mile-long line that stretched around a campus events center. “When you have that big of a crowd coming to see him, it’s a strong indication of what’s going on,” he said.
Among those waiting was Dwan Rager of Colorado Springs, who initially supported Cruz but said she has warmed to Trump. She and her husband both fret that he does not share their socially conservative views but said they were relieved by his choice of Pence as a running mate.
“Will he disappoint us? Will he shock us? Will he madden us? Absolutely,” Rager said of the GOP nominee. But, she added, “when you look past all of that stuff and you see some of the things that he’s doing, it’s reason to be encouraged.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.