Spotlight on Center Stage

The political center is alive and well in Colorado's 7th Congressional District.

DENVER—Poet William Butler Yeats wrote, "The center cannot hold." Yet the center is holding pretty well in this city's suburbs.

This is the location of something rare in American politics: a perfectly balanced congressional district. A judge designed it in 2002 to give neither party an advantage. That year, Colorado's 7th District elected Republican Bob Beauprez, giving him just 121 votes more than his Democratic rival. In 2004, Beauprez was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote. The district voted for a Republican for governor in 2002 and backed Democrats for senator and president in 2004. The party registration in Colorado's 7th is approximately one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third "unenrolled," as the state labels independents. As Lynn Bartels, a political reporter for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, put it when I interviewed her, "It is hard to find a more competitive district anywhere."

This year, Beauprez is running for governor. Democrat Ed Perlmutter and Republican Rick O'Donnell are in a closely watched contest for his seat in the House. Bartels said, "You are talking about one of the more liberal Democrats that was ever in the state Legislature with Ed, and Rick O'Donnell was considered really one of the conservative Republicans." Aha—polarization!

Not exactly. "Both of them are really to one side of their parties but racing to the middle because of the kind of district that it is," Bartels said. She added that the district is "about as 'mainstream suburban mom' as you can get."

The Republican nominee is racing to the middle on Iraq. "What we need is a new plan," O'Donnell said. "I think the strategy to win the war and the peace has been flawed." He's also moving to the middle on embryonic-stem-cell research. "Maybe there's a compromise here," he said. "Maybe there's a centrist approach where we can allow some federal funding for safe embryonic-stem-cell research."

According to a Colorado poll by the Rocky Mountain News and a CBS affiliate, "Illegal immigration remains a top concern among the state's voters." Democrat Perlmutter plays down the issue. "Most recently as last night, when I went to 40 houses, immigration didn't come up once," he told me last week. O'Donnell claims a different experience. "When I go door to door," the Republican reported, "the voters are saying, 'Look, we're not going to do any bargains this time until we know for sure that the borders are secure.' "

On illegal immigration, it's the Democrat who is racing to the middle. "Securing the borders, busting organized crime, and making employers abide by the law—those are the first three things that have to be done," Perlmutter said. Yet O'Donnell insisted, "The differences are big" between the candidates. The two differ principally over a guest-worker program, which Perlmutter says he favors "in limited cases where there is a severe labor shortage," and over providing a path to earned citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States. O'Donnell said, "If people have entered the country illegally, I believe they need to return home and come into this country in a legal way."

Perlmutter accuses Republicans of using illegal immigration as a "wedge issue." The state Legislature tried to give Perlmutter and other Colorado Democrats political cover by passing a tough bill to deal with illegal immigrants. "Here in Colorado, where we have a Democratic Legislature, we dealt with this issue," Perlmutter said. "We made it tougher for employers to continue to hire illegal aliens. We limited benefits to the bare bones for people who are here illegally."

Not enough, O'Donnell retorted. In his view, "The Legislature took steps in the right direction, but its hands are tied because, ultimately, it's a federal and not a state issue."

That would appear to create a problem for a Republican candidate. "It is perceived that a Republican president and a Republican Congress have not done anything about [illegal] immigration," Bartels noted. For O'Donnell, racing to the middle on immigration means racing away from his own party. But he is not an incumbent, so he can run an anti-Washington campaign. Both the Democrat and the Republican are promoting themselves as agents of "change."

The center exists all over the country. What makes Colorado's 7th District so unusual is that here, unlike almost anywhere else, the center has been empowered.