DENVER — It was after sunset as the flashing lights of Mitt Romney’s motorcade began the steep and winding climb up the hills west of Denver on Tuesday. By the time the Republican candidate arrived at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, the rocks were rocking.
Blue lights bathed the rock walls flanking the seating area. The Romney campaign’s stylized “R” logo was projected in white against the rocks. At the opposite end of the vast open-air setting, five American flags were hanging high up at the back of the big stage. The stage had a faux-autumn, western setting of fence posts, artificial grass, rocks and shrubs. The night air was seasonably warm.
A crowd estimated at 12,000 people jammed into the outdoor concert venue. Romney patted his heart in response to the thunderous and sustained applause that greeted him when he was introduced on stage by running mate Paul Ryan. Spectators enthusiastically smacked together their red and white thunder sticks with the drop of every zinger or one-liner. For Romney, it was everything he might have hoped for.
The Republican presidential candidate had spent much of the day in the air. A five-hour flight took him from Florida, the scene of his final debate with President Obama, to Las Vegas, where he addressed another enthusiastic, though smaller, crowd at another, though less spectacular, outdoor amphitheater. He declared his campaign supercharged by the debates, and the crowd responded with an enormous roar.
Then it was back into his motorcade for the quick drive across the dry, desert Nevada landscape to his campaign charter plane and the flight into Denver for his last stop of the day, to the most competitive of the Western battlegrounds and one that Romney’s campaign may need if he hopes to defeat the president in less than two weeks.
Four years ago, the Rocky Mountain West was the newly discovered hot spot in presidential politics, a region often ceded to Republicans in presidential campaigns but suddenly on everyone’s radar as a place the Democrats might make a breakthrough that could scramble long-held assumptions about the electoral map.
Bill Clinton had won a few of these states when he was running for president, but his success was attributed more to the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot than some seismic shift in the electoral fortunes of national Democrats. Then the rising Hispanic population in states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona began to change the political landscape.
Democrats took note four years ago and poured money and effort into the region. They set their convention in Denver, and Obama gave his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the stadium where the Denver Broncos play football. His campaign organized effectively, registering voters enough to significantly shift the partisan balance in some states. He won Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico on his way to victory.
The West has been overshadowed in campaign 2012. This fall, everything is focused on the Midwest — Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — as well as Florida and Virginia. But the region is important both for what it may do to the outcome of the presidential race and what it says about how changing demographics are changing America’s politics.
New Mexico is not a battleground this year; Republicans have essentially ceded it to Obama. Nevada, while competitive, appears to tilt slightly toward the Democrats, thanks to the growing Latino population and the power of organized labor. The sizable Mormon population gives Romney a base of support, and his visit to Reno on Wednesday, after his stop in Las Vegas on Tuesday, spoke to his campaign’s desire to keep it in play.
Colorado, with nine electoral votes, remains the big prize. Given the landscape in Nevada and New Mexico and Romney’s thread-the-needle path to 270 electoral votes, Colorado is a state he cannot afford to let slip away. Can he win without it? Yes, but as is the case with some other battlegrounds, without those nine votes, his route to victory becomes more difficult.
Obama has now felt the highs and lows of mile-high Denver. Four years ago, it was the highs. He won the caucuses against Hillary Rodham Clinton on his way to the nomination and seemed to have a special attachment to the state and city. In the closing days of the 2008 race, he drew a crowd of 100,000 people in Denver, one of his biggest rallies in the city.
This year, it could be remembered as the city where his campaign unraveled. His performance in the Denver debate three weeks ago marked a low point for the president. He has been fighting to recover ever since.
Obama was scheduled to arrive in Denver on Wednesday afternoon for a big rally, an answer to Romney’s Tuesday evening appearance. His quick stop, part of his 48-hour swing through battleground states all across the country, was aimed at energizing the cadre of voters who were excited by hope and change four years ago and whose enthusiasm is needed to hold the state for a second time.
The Denver debate brought a surge of energy to the state’s Republicans, which pulsated at Red Rocks on Tuesday night. A top Democratic strategist said the final two debates helped reassure and reenergize supporters who were let down by Obama’s performance in the first debate.
Given his 2008 margin here, Obama can afford to lose a few of those voters who backed him then, but not many. Before the Denver debate, Democrats here were quietly confident that he would hold the state, though by a narrower margin, with the help of strong support from women, a good turnout by Latinos and Obama’s deep connection to the state.
Democrats still believe that Obama is in position to win, but Republicans say they are on the upswing. Public polls show that the race is a toss-up. As in every state where the balance is in doubt, persuasion is important and turnout is critical.
Republicans need a big turnout in the more conservative areas but say they have little doubt they will get it. Ryan, whose pick cheered conservative Republicans, was working those areas this week. One GOP strategist said enthusiasm among Republicans is way up compared with four years ago. The keys, as has been said repeatedly, are the two big suburban counties around Denver, Jefferson and Arapahoe.
There will be plenty written about Ohio, Florida and Virginia over the next dozen days. But no one should lose sight of the competition underway in this Rocky Mountain battleground.