In this Sept. 27, 2011 photo, President Barack Obama greets the crowd after speaking in Denver. Obama’s declining popularity has Colorado Democrats treading carefully as the president campaigns in a state he consider a must-win in 2012. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Chief correspondent

By almost every electoral scenario, the road to the White House in 2012 will run directly through Colorado and a handful of other Rocky Mountain states. Right now, neither President Obama, who will visit here early this week, nor the Republicans who debated in Las Vegas last week should feel confident about their prospects in this pivotal region.

That conclusion comes from a recent day spent interviewing voters and some non-voters in suburban Arapahoe County just east of Denver. Those conversations highlighted three current realities ahead of the coming presidential race.

First, voters of all stripes are more disgusted with what they see and hear from Washington than they have been in a long time. Second, the president’s performance has been a disappointment even to many of his 2008 supporters, and some doubt that he will be reelected. Third, no one in the Republican field has captured anyone’s imagination. Republicans are far from making a sale.

Anger with politics in Washington is palpable, erupting with great force when people are asked about the state of the nation or recent efforts to deal with the country’s problems. People see and feel an economy that is still inflicting pain on them or their families or their friends three years after the collapse in 2008. In the face of those problems, they see only bickering and gridlock in Washington, not leadership.

“The Democrats go down one road and the Republicans go down another, and those roads don’t meet,” said John Elam, a retired pharmacist. Without missing a beat, his wife, Evelyn, a retired teacher, jumped in to say, “And if there’s a bridge between them, they’ll burn it.”

“The situation in Washington is so bad because they won’t do anything to fix it,” said Mike Albi, a retired electrician, referring to the politicians. “They won’t get away from politics and do their job. People are angry and frustrated and have no focal point. . . . You think the Arab Spring can’t happen here? Think again. You push people far enough and they’ll revolt.”

Tom Brown, who leads tour groups abroad, pointed to the Occupy Wall Street protests that have sprung up in many cities. “It’s kind of like a volcanic gurgle,” he said. “The mountain hasn’t exploded, but it’s rumbling.”

The day before last week’s Republican debate in Las Vegas, Project New West, a Democratic group, held a conference that included a panel of Western strategists. They were surprisingly optimistic about Obama’s prospects for winning the Rocky Mountain region next year — especially given the comments from voters I spoke with a few days earlier.

Obama brought the 2008 convention to Denver to stake a claim in the West, and it worked. He won Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, three states that had gone Republican in 2004, on his way to victory. Today, however, much of the enthusiasm he generated in the region has largely disappeared.

The Elams both voted for Obama in 2008, although John was a more reluctant supporter than was Evelyn. They believe no president in modern times has faced more crises than Obama and are sympathetic to him because of that. But when asked about the president’s prospects next year, Evelyn said, “I don’t think he will be reelected . . . because everybody blames him for all the problems.” John Elam said, “Whether he deserves it or not, he probably won’t be reelected.”

Randy Brooks, who is in the wholesale furniture business, also voted for the president. “The way things have gone, something isn’t there” with Obama’s leadership, he said. Does he think Obama deserves a second term? “I’m not sure he does,” Brooks said.

Heidi Roth-Aguinis, a psychotherapist from Indiana who was visiting the Denver area, voted for Obama, but today, she says, she is “very disappointed” in him. She sees the country in a bad position and doesn’t know “if we’re going to get out of it.”

She has soured on the president because she doesn’t think he knows how to lead. She sees Republicans as constantly putting obstacles in Obama’s path but believes a strong, effective leader should find ways to overcome them. “I don’t think he knows how to use that leadership, and I don’t think he knows how to bring people together,” she said.

Obama still has many strong supporters who think he has tried hard to solve problems, and they blame Republicans for obstructionism. Sharon Logan, who was in the telecommunications industry, voted for Obama, and while she has some disappointments, she believes that he is “doing the best job he can do.” On the economy, she said, “I think his grasp of it is as good as anybody’s. It’s just going to take a long time.”

All in all, Obama will have to work harder to win these states in 2012.

If the president’s weaknesses are apparent, the Republicans have done little to capi­tal­ize on them. The party’s candidates have debated eight times already this year but have made little impression on the public.

The Las Vegas debate produced more harsh exchanges than illumination. No one has put forth a proposal to resolve the foreclosure crisis, which has left Nevada with the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 13.4 percent.

Sharon Logan’s husband, Tom, is a Republican who right now sees “a circus” in the race for his party’s nomination. He liked Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. “I thought he was more of a people person,” he said. But Huckabee decided not to run.

Logan is intrigued by businessman Herman Cain but not committed. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the nominal GOP front-runner, hasn’t impressed him. “I think Romney tells people whatever they want to hear,” he added.

Bruce Drinkwalter, a former UPS employee, sees Obama as a weak leader, but when asked whether he sees a Republican on the horizon who can lead the country effectively, he paused. “That is a really hard question,” he said. Like some others, he is looking at Cain and has questions about Romney. “I think it would be politics as usual with him,” he said of Romney.

Others see Romney as having the kind of experience the country needs. Michael Tapp, who works for a major bank, thinks there are several candidates in the Republican field who have potential, Romney, Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry among them.

Tapp’s wife, Elizabeth, a homemaker who operates a small business, isn’t sure. “I would love to see somebody emerge, but it’s not likely,” she said. “That is one of the problems of the Republican Party. There is no one who is a strong leader who can gain support and bring things back together.”

Democrats count on making the election a choice between a president who has lost some of his luster and a Republican whom they will try to paint as deeply flawed. Republicans hope that dissatisfaction with Obama is so deep that voters will turn to them regardless. In this state, the voters sound more discerning. They are looking for answers and so far aren’t finding many.