How the West will be won

Politics | In a tight presidential race, get-out-the-vote strategies are key to holding GOP territory, and margins could turn on minority voters and local races. First in a three-part series on battleground states

Issue: "Terrorism: Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004

DENVER - Republicans have a problem in Colorado, and her name is Maria Martinez. She's middle-class, Catholic, a mother of four. She describes herself as pro-life and thinks her taxes are too high. So why is she spending a sunny autumn afternoon at a Democratic campaign rally?

She has nothing against Pete Coors, the Republican beer baron running for Colorado's open seat in the U.S. Senate. But the mere mention of Mr. Coors's opponent makes her positively giddy.

"Do you know his last name?" she asks, pointing at the sticker on her blouse. "Salazar. Sal-a-zar. I like a last name with a z. It means he's probably one of us," she says with a self-deprecating laugh. "It's like the Italians. They always end in a vowel, we always have a z."

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By "one of us," Ms. Martinez means that Ken Salazar is Hispanic-sort of. The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate is a fifth-generation Coloradoan whose great-great-great grandparents happened to be Mexican. As a lawyer and rancher who was twice elected state attorney general, he would seem to have little in common with millions of more recent immigrants working in minimum-wage jobs, struggling to get by.

But he does have that z in his name. For voters like Maria Martinez, that may be reason enough to send him to the Senate. "It would make me proud to say we have a Senator Sal-a-zar," she said, emphasizing the Spanish sound of the name. "I could say to my children, 'See, if you work hard and you study your lessons, you might go to the Senate one day.' This is why I love America."

If that's reason enough for voters like Maria Martinez to send him to the Senate, it's also the reason Bush strategists are hard at work to make every vote count not only in the national poll, but in tight races at the local level.

The president has seriously eroded the Democratic hold on the Hispanic vote (his father won 25 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1992; Mr. Bush is polling 36 percent now) and the Centennial State is historically a GOP bastion, going Republican in eight of the last 10 presidential elections. But this year-with the state's Hispanic population nearing 20 percent-Colorado's nine electoral votes are very much in play. Polls show the presidential contest here is too close to call, as are races for the Senate and the House of Representatives. That means both parties have been forced to lavish time and money on a state that-like much of the West-used to be an electoral afterthought. With Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado all considered too close to call, the region looms large on this year's electoral map.

Despite the challenges, Republican officials in Colorado vow to keep their state firmly in the "red zone." The good news for the president is that he is gaining among Hispanic voters-up 1 percentage point in polls over his 2000 draw among Hispanics-while John Kerry is slipping.

A Sept. 30 survey among likely Hispanic voters in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico showed that Mr. Kerry is attracting only 56 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to 62 percent for Al Gore four years ago. "These numbers do not bode well for Sen. Kerry," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, which conducted the poll. "Kerry holds a 20-point lead over President Bush, but over the past several elections we've seen the Democratic nominee hold a considerably larger margin. If this year's election is anywhere near as close as the 2000 contest, this margin will probably not be enough."

"I predict President Bush will win, no question about it," says Ted Halaby, the state GOP chairman. "If you look statewide, we still have a registration advantage of 185,000. So if we can just get out our voters, we should have success in statewide races."

Indeed, getting out the vote is priority No. 1 in the closing days of the campaign. Two years ago, a get-out-the-vote effort called the "96-hour project" attracted 1,300 volunteers and was credited with helping to elect a new Republican senator and congressman. So far this year, more than 5,000 volunteers have signed up for the last-minute voter blitz, and party officials are aggressively pushing for more.

At a Sept. 30 debate-watching party in a downtown Denver hotel, Vice President Dick Cheney was the headliner, but new volunteers were the prize. As invited guests squeezed one by one through a security checkpoint, party workers swooped in with clipboards. "Can we sign you up for the 96-hour project?" they asked over and over again, collecting scores of new commitments from voters.


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