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How the West will be won

"How the West will be won" Continued...

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

Even with an advantage in voter registrations, however, the path to victory is far from clear. While Republicans do outnumber Democrats, nearly one-third of Coloradoans are registered independents, motivated by current events and local issues more than party loyalty. Restless after eight years of Bill Clinton, independents went strongly for George W. Bush in 2000, lifting him to a solid, 9-point victory over Al Gore. But now the independents are restless again, and GOP leaders think they know why.

"The Iraq war is a big issue," Mr. Halaby acknowledges. "That's probably been the biggest variable that wasn't present four years ago." Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, has sent more than 12,000 troops to Iraq, and more than 40 of those troops have been killed-a low but insidious casualty rate that keeps John Kerry competitive in the state.

Then there's the economy. Mr. Halaby likes to boast that Colorado's unemployment rate of 5.1 percent is better than the national average of 5.5 percent, but four years ago the state's jobless figure stood at just 2.6 percent. Though the economy seems to have turned a corner-state revenues have been up for the past three years-the loss of 76,000 jobs has left many voters worried about their financial future.

If Mr. Bush faces doubts about the war and the economy elsewhere, what makes Colorado different is a volatile mix of demographics, geography, and local politics. Although Mr. Bush connects with Hispanic voters better than most Republican politicians, Democrats retain a sizeable advantage. Colorado Democrats targeted Hispanics in a registration drive that has netted some 50,000 new voters since January.

What Republicans have in their favor is that Mr. Kerry has failed to win the affection of Hispanic voters. "I don't think John Kerry has ever been able to identify with the Hispanic community," says Bush-Cheney spokesman Danny Diaz. "Kerry's having trouble defining himself out here. There are a lot of folks out here who don't understand him."

That's where Ken Salazar's race for the Senate comes in. By helping to mobilize Hispanics across the state, he gives Democrats hope for a rare trickle-up victory. If Salazar supporters-many of them first-time voters-vote a straight-party ticket in unusually high numbers, they may help Mr. Kerry win here in spite of himself.

The Bush-Cheney team isn't taking the threat lightly. "We're fighting for every single Hispanic vote," says Mr. Diaz. "We have a grassroots network, Spanish-language phone banks, radio and TV interviews on Spanish stations, Spanish-language ads on the air. We're walking neighborhoods, knocking on doors. We're engaged at both grassroots and mass-communication levels. . . . Our challenge is to communicate the clear choice and mobilize the vote."

In addition to winning more Hispanic voters, the GOP needs to turn out large numbers of conservative rural voters. But those efforts, too, may be hampered by the Salazar factor-in this case, John Salazar, a Democratic congressional candidate in the western part of the state and the Senate candidate's older brother.

The elder Mr. Salazar is running for the seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican. With a 13,000-voter edge in registration, national Republicans once considered the sprawling 3rd Congressional District relatively safe territory. But Mr. Salazar, a third-generation farmer in a largely agricultural district, has maintained a consistent lead in the polls\. By presenting himself as a moderate, pro-gun Democrat, he's avoided some of the stigma of the national party. Meanwhile, some voters haven't forgiven his Republican opponent, Greg Walcher, for supporting a statewide referendum that many feared would divert scarce water to Denver's growing suburbs at the expense of more rural areas.

A Democratic win in a rural congressional district could spell trouble for Republicans. Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 2 to 1 in Denver, the state's largest city-an advantage that is usually offset by more conservative voters in the countryside. If those rural voters opt for a Democratic congressman this time around, the GOP must convince them to split their ticket in favor of Mr. Bush and Mr. Coors.

Mr. Diaz believes the Bush message will resonate in the 3rd Congressional District, no matter who wins the race for the House. "What drives turnout in rural areas is the top of the ticket," he says. "On the Democratic side, you have the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. He voted against the partial-birth abortion ban. He's taken questionable positions on gay marriage. Voted for higher taxes 350 times. On issue after issue, John Kerry has just taken the wrong side. . . . George Bush stands for the tenets that these rural voters support, and the Democratic candidates do not."

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