Colorado: Romney's Comeback State?

The Western swing state may offer the Republican his ripest opportunity to pick up electoral votes -- but locals wonder if he's blowing it.

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Reuters

DENVER -- You meet a different kind of Republican out West.

They wear sandals. They bring up diversity and the environment. They don't even mind Democrats too much. "I'm a Romney guy, but the president has a lot of support here, too," Denverite Scott Heimel, 44, tells me at a Romney speech in an airplane hangar on the eastern edge of town. "We're a diverse state, a fair state. There's a lot of tolerance here. It's very agreeable, generally -- except when the Raiders are in town."

While Rust Belt states like Ohio and Wisconsin have lately seemed to be slipping from Romney's grasp, Colorado still looms as a tantalizing possibility for the Republican nominee. Polling has been inconsistent but tight; a recent We Ask America poll put President Obama up by 3 percentage points in the state, 49-46.

"Colorado is a lot of farmers and cowboys -- and aging yuppies, like me," Dennis Dougherty, an affable, white-haired Republican financial adviser from the south suburbs, told me. "And hippies, I guess. But deep down, it's conservative. People vote their pocketbook."

Strategists here aren't surprised to see Romney in better shape here than in other swing states or nationally. His pragmatic, moderate image, they say, is a good sell in the West. Secular, libertarian-leaning and skeptical of Washington, it's a region where neither religious issues nor class warfare get much traction, where voters of all political stripes generally like to see themselves as independent and pro-business. A common campaign tactic for both parties is to label opponents "extreme," an epithet that, research shows, makes voters here recoil. And with a sizable Mormon population, thanks to neighboring Utah, Romney's religion doesn't strike most Coloradans as foreign or exotic.

Meanwhile, Romney's economic message resonates. (In Denver on Monday, he spoke in front of four 10-foot-tall blue signs reading "J," "O," "B" and "S.") Colorado's unemployment rate is above the national average, while Ohio, Iowa and Virginia all have rates below it. While Obama's popularity has declined by 2 points or less in the rest of the country since his election in 2008, the president has lost 12 points in the West, according to a recent New York Times analysis. Plus, as of this week, Romney has the endorsement of John Elway, the former Broncos quarterback and local demigod.

On paper, this ought to be a ripe target for Romney -- and given his smashing success in Wednesday's debate in Denver, it would be fitting for Colorado to be the state where he stages his comeback.

But many Republicans wonder if instead he's blowing one of his best opportunities to pick up electoral votes. Romney, they say, is being outhustled by Obama on the ground and outspent on the airwaves, while largely failing to repair a yawning deficit with the sizable bloc of Hispanic voters.

"The lengthened primary season really hurt Romney," said Denver-based political consultant Sean Tonner, who has steered Republican presidential, gubernatorial and Senate campaigns in the state. "The Obama campaign never stopped in Colorado. The Romney campaign was still putting coalitions together in July and didn't hit its stride on the ground until mid-August."

Obama has 59 campaign offices in the state; Romney has 13. While Republicans are outnumbered on this metric in all the swing states, the deficit is particularly severe here. (In Ohio, for example, Obama has 100 offices to Romney's 38.) A robust ground game is especially important in a state where more than 70 percent of voters will cast ballots before election day. Between mail voting, which will begin in the coming week, and early voting, get-out-the-vote is a weeks-long continuous turnout operation. "Whatever the most accurate polls are saying, I would tack on 2 to 4 points for Obama based on the ground-game advantage," Tonner said.

Romney is also being outgunned by Obama on television. In the last week of September, the Obama campaign spent twice what Romney's team did on Colorado TV ads, $1.6 million to $840,000, according to National Journal's tracking. And GOP outside groups aren't picking up the slack. A recent study by the Wesleyan Media Project found that Obama and Democratic groups aired 4,800 commercials in the Denver market in September, while Romney and GOP groups aired 3,000 -- the biggest Democratic advertising advantage of any swing-state media market. Watching network news one morning this week, I saw five Obama ads, zero Romney ads, and two anti-Obama ads from Americans for Job Security. On the evening news, I finally saw some Romney spots, but they were badly outnumbered.

Local Republicans "have noted and raised the issue" of Romney's air-war disadvantage, Ryan Call, the Colorado Republican Party chairman, told me, and received assurances that it's about to change. "I think you are going to see a significant increase in ad spending in the coming weeks," he said.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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