Rocky Mountain tie: In Colorado, will it be Obama or Romney who reaches the summit?

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

COMMERCE CITY, Colorado – Bill Clinton was doing what he does best: making the passionate case for Barack Obama that the president oddly enough seems incapable of making for himself.

“I’m more enthusiastic about President Obama this time than when I campaigned for him last time,” Clinton assured a crowd of more than 1,000 Democrats crammed into a high-school gym on Tuesday afternoon in a Latino neighborhood just outside of Denver.

Obviously reveling in his return to stump-speech politics, the white-haired former president claimed that Mitt Romney’s promise to create 12 million jobs is the precise number that would be added anyway by the economic recovery. Then Clinton added a bit of political jujitsu to this factual case against Romney: “His argument is: Get [Obama] out of there so I can get credit for the jobs that he will create.”

With the Colorado polls locked in a Rocky Mountain tie, it is hard to know what small event might make a difference at the margins in the waning days of Campaign 2012. The Obama campaign is pushing the Clinton connection hard, with the 42nd president visible on Denver TV Wednesday in a 30-second spot during the 8 a.m. break of "Good Morning America." Democratic operatives were buoyed by a strong Latino turnout for the Clinton rally organized on short notice. But elsewhere it was easy to detect signs of trouble for Obama in a swing state that he carried four years ago with 54 percent of the vote.  

Take this scene from outside an early voting center in Aurora:

Vivienne Burrell had just voted unhesitatingly for Barack Obama, but the experience left the African-American nursing assistant with an unexpected sense of letdown. As she left the Arapahoe County building in the Denver suburbs on Saturday afternoon, Burrell confided to a friend: “In 2008, it was making history. This was just a re-run.”

Beyond this enthusiasm gap, the more serious problem that Obama faces are 2008 supporters slip-sliding away. At the Aurora early voting center, I met a middle-aged accountant wearing a Denver Broncos sweatshirt who was still mulling his vote seconds before he cast it. The vacillating accountant did not want his name used, but his story is emblematic of larger truths about how voting habits change.

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The Vacillator was a reliable Republican until he impulsively voted Democratic in the Bush-Gore election in 2000—and then backed John Kerry in 2004 and Obama last time. But this time around, he was reluctantly going for Romney. His reason: “His stance against abortion.”

It is tempting to dismiss the Vacillator as a single-issue voter, but his story is more complicated than that. A devout Catholic, he admitted to “coming under a lot of pressure from my very pro-life family.” But in the prior three presidential elections, he resisted these family and religious appeals to vote for Democrats who supported abortion rights.

So why is 2012 any different? Because, he said, “I’m also disappointed with Obama and the economy.”  In short, Colorado’s 8 percent unemployment rate (just about the national average) has prompted this weathervane voter to return to his previous political identity as a social conservative who tilts Republican. Obama won—and then lost—this voter’s allegiance.

We have reached the stage of the campaign in Colorado when snap decisions in parking lots about whom to vote for are binding. Sometime late Thursday afternoon or early Friday morning, half the presidential votes will have been cast in this early-voting state. The best estimates are that 60 percent of Coloradans will vote early by mail; 10 percent will cast their ballots at early voting centers; 20 percent will vote in person on Election Day; and another 10 percent will drop off their absentee ballots at the very last minute.

What this means is that the president has had a bit less time in Colorado than elsewhere to rebound from his no-show at the kick-off Oct. 3 debate, the Debacle in Denver. “I wonder if that first debate had more of an impact in Colorado because it was held here,” said two-term Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican locked in a tight race to hold his redrawn congressional district that includes part of Arapahoe County.

So where would Romney be in Colorado right now without that breakthrough first debate? “It would be a lot different,” Coffman said. “It would be a lot tougher.”

With nearly 1 million ballots already cast in Colorado, it may be significant that slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats have voted. Or it may be a statistical blip. That is the problem with these data bits floating around the political conversation. It is easy for partisans to spin them, but it is difficult to know what they portend.

Obama, to be sure, has organizational advantages in Colorado. During the four-month period before the Oct. 9 deadline, the Democrats registered 75,000 more Colorado voters than did the Republicans. Now that the voting rolls have closed, the GOP retains a 41,000-voter edge in statewide registration. 

“If there had been a real surge of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, you would have seen it in the voter registration numbers for late September and early October,” said Colorado Democratic strategist Rick Ridder. “Since the close of registration came after the first debate, you would think that the Romney campaign would have been knocking down the doors of the county clerks. But it didn’t happen.”

The model that the Obama campaign is following in Colorado is partially lifted from the strategy that Sen. Michael Bennet used to buck the 2010 national trend and defeat Tea Party favorite Ken Buck by a 2 percent margin, or 29,000 votes. Buck was an undisciplined right-winger who, in a 2010 debate, ridiculed his primary opponent Jane Norton by saying: “I do not wear high heels. I wear cowboy boots.” Small wonder that Bennet, in his face-off with Buck, took the votes of Colorado women by a landslide 56-to-39 percent margin.   

In Colorado, social issues have played a less dramatic role in this presidential election than during, say, the George W. Bush years. Sunday morning at a leading Denver-area mega-church (the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada), there was not the slightest allusion to the election from the pulpit, nor was any political material (like candidate scorecards) distributed. In a survey of the sprawling church parking lot, I saw only six Romney-Ryan bumper-stickers. Not surprisingly, given the political demographics of mega-church-goers, there was no evidence of Obama support.

The Romney camp’s nervousness about an unbridgeable gender gap in Colorado is apparent from the TV spots running on Denver television. The Romney campaign was still featuring a two-week old ad in which a young woman, a disillusioned Obama supporter, says to camera, “Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all.” When a candidate has to spend money on TV spots to emphasize that he will not ban family-planning products available in any drugstore, it is axiomatic that he detects a problem with women voters.

Interviewing voters in Aurora, I pressed them for an explanation why they had decided to cast their ballots 10 full days before the election. The most frequent response to my why-vote-now question was a good-citizen shrug and the grudging answer: “To get it over with.”

I belatedly realized that those would be exactly the same words that I would hear if I stood in the lobby of a building filled with dental surgeons and asked, “Why are you here?” While Colorado remains politically knotted, there is bipartisan zeal to be finally done with this dispiriting election.