By TIMOTHY EGAN Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)
DENVER – From Buffalo Bill’s grave atop Lookout Mountain you can see nearly every vote Barack Obama needs to win the presidency – that is, if all goes as planned starting next week, when Democrats settle into the Geography of Hope.
Below are the Front Range suburbs, one of the fastest growing areas in the country, where women and the young are more likely to favor Obama, and men are proudly independent – waiting to be impressed, reluctant to embrace any one party, concerned about the rookie with the funny name.
You see a metro area rated one of the most educated, but also a troubled exurban frontier, mile-high neighborhoods named for lost ranches where the leading crop this season is the foreclosure sign. This is the America that Obama has to win, and if he simply holds on to every state that Al Gore took in 2000 and claims Colorado’s nine electoral votes he will be the next president.
This is also the America that Karl Rove lost, or miscalculated, when the man who likes to be called The Architect thought he had put together his permanent Republican majority. It was based on an all-white core in the solid South, evangelicals and small towns in the Midwest, and gun lovers and tax-aphobics in the Mountain West.
But politics is not all wedge issues and brand-specific sloganeering. At some point, parties have to govern. And what nearly two-out-of-every-three Americans concluded in the last four years – based on disapproval ratings – was that Republicans could not govern at a national level.
They lost a city, in New Orleans, a budget surplus by pandering to lobbyist-greased congressional leaders, and world standing by waging a war that may end up as the most costly and longest in our history.
Their moral strutting proved as thin as the claim to fiscal responsibility. Down the road, in Colorado Springs, a minister who bragged that he had the White House on speed dial was brought down by a male prostitute and meth.
Western Democrats, so long in the desert, have reinvented themselves. What people will see on television early next week will be feisty, independent-minded governors from Montana, Arizona and Colorado, and a Latino senator, Ken Salazar, who can wear a cowboy hat without looking like John Kerry in camouflage.
In 2004, Republicans had a 175,000-person advantage in party identification among registered voters in Colorado. That’s been cut in half. And this year, among new voters, the tide is blue, with 69,000 registering as Democrats against only 42,000 as Republicans.
The Architect now thinks Obama will likely win Colorado, as he said in a Wall Street Journal piece last week. The key to an Obama victory here would be college-educated white voters, according to Rove. The Dilberts in all these office parks with mountain bike tracks just outside are trending Democratic.
And something else is at work: The Census Bureau earlier this month predicted that by the year 2023 – yes, a mere 15 years away – more than half of all children in the United States will be minorities. Hispanics make up the bulk of that change, and as they come of age, they follow people like Salazar, who won the big suburban counties in the Denver metro area even as John Kerry lost them in 2004.
These Mountain Democrats have given national Democrats a way to win the West – and by extension the White House. They need a clear energy policy, not just pictures of windmills and happy talk by Prius-driving enviros. John McCain is winning the energy debate with a simplistic and untrue promise to drill our way to lower gas prices – the opposite of straight talk, but it’s working.
A Rocky Mountain News poll last week showed that Colorado voters who listed energy and gas prices as the top issue favored McCain 50 percent to 34 percent. Democrats will need to speak to middle-class financial insecurity. That same Rocky Mountain poll showed that the economy is the number one issue, and among those voters Obama had the edge, 44 to 38 percent.
That poll also gave Obama the edge among suburban women, and therein lies the third secret to winning here. In stating imperiously last week that life begins at conception, McCain showed that he is out of touch with the prevailing sentiment of New Westerners. On guns, abortion, and other issues of personal choice, they want government to leave them alone. They are independents, an affiliation growing faster than Republicans, who resemble Cafeteria Catholics. That is, they pick and choose what they like from each of the parties.
McCain’s cock-eyed certainty – on a woman’s choice, as well as war – sounds more like that of George W. Bush, who has become toxic in this state, despite having won it twice. Finally, the war is as unpopular here as it is elsewhere. But the issue that hasn’t been hammered home, yet comes up repeatedly in interviews with voters, is one of old-fashioned national interest. Why spend $10 billion a month rebuilding a country that has an oil revenue surplus, while here at home we max out our credit cards to pay the weekly gas bill?
It’s a selfish but old-fashioned argument: Those ungrateful Iraqis are draining our treasury, and for what?
McCain, despite his senior moments and the reflexive go-to-war sentiments he showed last week on Georgia and Russia, is trusted more on foreign affairs. But if he can be painted as the guy behind the ultimate earmark – a blank check to Iraq – the war becomes his Bridge to Nowhere.
Between rallies and parties next week, Democrats would do well to come up to the Rocky Mountain promontory where William F. Cody, the Elvis of the Old West, is buried. They should come to this perch and look out at the future. It’s theirs to lose.
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Aug. 20, 2008