The West offers road to power, Dems insist

Obama up and ready, McCain motionless

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Top Western Democrats spent much of last week extolling “the New West” as the “road to the White House.” During a conference call Thursday morning, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Democrats’ ground game gives them a major advantage over the Republicans.

“Right now, we have on the ground an organization like I’ve never seen before in Nevada,” he said, referring to the immense grassroots support Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has garnered.

He called Obama’s political machine “unparalleled,” and noted that in Nevada alone, the Obama campaign has opened 10 campaign offices. In Colorado, they’ve opened 20.

Meanwhile, said Reid, Republican candidate John McCain is “basically doing nothing.”

Reid said Democrats feel confident about their chances in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico — three key states that could deliver Obama the presidency — partly because of the sheer excitement created by the Democratic primary, which simultaneously helped Obama recruit volunteers and raise money.

Democrats also have a registration advantage of 61,000 in Nevada “for the first time in a generation,” Reid said, thanks to that excitement.

“During our caucuses, it was the beginning of really the demise of the Republican Party,” Reid said.

In Colorado, Republicans still outnumber Democrats by about 100,000, but unaffiliated voters outnumber both parties.

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who joined Reid on the conference call, said Obama’s supporters have been equally thorough in Colorado. He said Obama has spread a “statewide blanket of organization” that covers even the most far-flung counties in the state.

Democrats also believe they gain strength by pointing out the weakness of President George W. Bush’s economic policies. Reid said the mortgage industry crisis has led to a serious economic downturn in Nevada and that “people have had enough.” He said home sales in Nevada are down by 30 percent, new home permits are down 35 percent, and that even Nevada’s famed gaming industry, the backbone of the state’s economy, is down 16 percent.

“We’re bleeding red ink,” Reid said, also noting that deficit spending in the United States has reduced a $7 trillion surplus in 2000 to a $11 trillion deficit.

The two Democrats called McCain a “clone of George Bush” who will prove unable to separate himself from the low approval ratings of the Republican president. Reid said Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, has suggested Obama might beat McCain in his home state.

Salazar also said, during a Wednesday conference call of his own, that if Obama hopes to win Colorado, he should follow the example he and Gov. Bill Ritter laid out in 2004 and 2006 by positioning themselves as moderate problem-solvers eager to reach across the partisan divide.

And even though he’s Hispanic, Salazar said he doesn’t think the Hispanic voting bloc in battleground states such as Colorado will be pivotal for Obama. He noted that in 2004, Hispanics made up only 8 percent of the vote nationally.

“The Hispanic community alone will not be the force that ultimately determines the outcome of the election,” Salazar said, adding that Latinos will play an important role, nonetheless.

Salazar also said he doesn’t expect the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week to give Obama a percentage bump in statewide polls, where he is now basically tied with McCain.

On Monday afternoon at the Governor’s Mansion, top Colorado Democrats also held a press conference to discuss campaign tactics for both Obama and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall.

The upshot, said Gov. Bill Ritter, is that the Democrats simply have to outwork the other team.

“There has to be a real serious ground game, a campaign that is in full swing in September and early October,” Ritter said during a press conference after the meeting. “None of it is, quite frankly, rocket science. It’s all things that are going to involve a lot of effort, a lot of energy, a lot of people rolling up their sleeves and being willing to apply some elbow grease.”

Ritter said Colorado’s early voting system creates an impetus for the early focus. Ballots will be sent out beginning Oct. 5 and can be returned as early as Oct. 15, he noted. For that reason, he said, the Democrats have to kick their campaigns into high gear immediately after next week’s convention.

Ritter said his message to Obama is simple: emphasize the economy.

“He has to tell people directly about how he’s going to create jobs, and if you look at his energy policy, it does just that,” Ritter said, noting that Obama’s plans call for the construction of enough manufacturing facilities to produce at least 1 million hybrid automobiles by 2015.

The meeting was attended by roughly a dozen high-profile Democrats and campaign consultants, including former Denver mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña, former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, 7th District Congressman Ed Perlmutter, Colorado Senate President Peter Groff, of Denver; state Rep. Rosemary Marshall, of Denver; Convention Host Committee member Steve Farber, and strategists David Kenney and Steve Welchert. Salazar, who arguably spent more time than any Colorado Democrat stumping for Obama last week, was also there.

Members of the group said they held both the meeting and the press conference in an effort to break through saturated media coverage and excitement over the convention, which begins Monday. Their focus, they said, needs to remain on coloring Colorado blue.

Salazar said Colorado is “ground zero” in the race for the White House, and suggested that Obama’s concern for issues that affect rural residents should help him take Colorado along with other states in the West.

“John McCain has not voted for a single farm bill for the last 15 years,” Salazar charged.

He also blasted McCain for stating recently that the 1922 Colorado River Compact between Colorado and the states in the Colorado River Basin should be reopened for negotiation. Salazar said the suggestion implies that Colorado is hoarding water that should be distributed downstream.

Salazar said McCain’s position is “very dangerous,” and said Obama will “follow the doctrine, which is sacrosanct here in Colorado.”

Schoettler echoed Reid’s point about turnout and said that excitement among young and first-time voters over Obama’s candidacy probably will help turn the tide for the Illinois senator.

“We are actually looking at a sea change in this state,” Schoettler said. “I’ve gone to my caucuses for several decades, and never have I seen more than five to 10 people. This time, when I walked in there were 300 people, and I would guess 80 percent of them were young.”

During the Thursday conference call, Salazar also predicted that Obama’s candidacy will have significant coattails for Udall and for Democrat Betsy Markey, who is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.

Webb, who served as national co-chair for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said the committee also is taking into account the sometimes bitter division between Obama supporters and disappointed Clinton supporters.

“All of us are coming together. We do not want to see another third term of George Bush. This election is about the past versus the future, and Senator Obama is the future,” Webb said.

Webb said the Republicans should stop considering the Western states “a safe harbor.”

“North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado are all in play,” he said.

Webb responded to reporter questions about whether Denverites will be inconvenienced by the convention and the multiple road closures of such major arteries as Interstate 25 by arguing that the convention itself will be a special moment in history.

“Depending on your age, most people know where they were when JFK was assassinated, or when Willie Mays made the over-the-head catch in the all-star game. There are certain highlights that everyone remembers,” Webb said.

Although Colorado has only nine electoral votes, members of the committee believe the state will play a decisive role in the November election.

They consider Colorado a bellwether state and believe that if it goes blue for Obama, Nevada and New Mexico will follow suit. If that happens and Obama keeps all the states that Sen. John Kerry won in 2004, the Illinois senator wouldn’t have to win Ohio or Florida, the states that tipped the 2000 and 2004 elections into George W. Bush’s column.

“The map has changed significantly,” said Obama campaign spokesman Matt Chandler. “We’re fighting the battle everywhere.”

He noted that the Obama camp has opened offices even in such conservative bastions as El Paso and Mesa counties.

But Coloradans are notorious for splitting their tickets. Although Bush carried the state in the last presidential election, Salazar won the Senate race over Republican Pete Coors and Democrats took control of the state Legislature.

“Every election in Colorado, that large pool of unaffiliated voters, that is largely concentrated in the Denver suburbs, they swing elections back and forth,” noted Colorado Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams, who was waiting outside the Governor’s Mansion to speak to reporters after the Democrats’ press conference.

“But they’re up for grabs every two years. No election in Colorado is determining of what’s going to happen in the next election.”

Wadhams echoed a common theme throughout the U.S. Senate race so far: that energy and gas prices will be the most crucial issue this November. Wadhams, who doubles as state party chair and campaign manager for Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, said recent polls have proved that point, and that both Udall and Obama are on the wrong side of the energy issue, having only recently said they would be willing to consider supporting more offshore drilling.

“It’s perfectly understandable that the Democrats had to meet in the panic room today,” he said.

“Governor Ritter’s approval ratings are down by 20 points in just a few months, John McCain has now surged ahead of Barack Obama, and poor old Boulder liberal Udall has spent millions upon millions of dollars attacking Bob Schaffer, and it’s for nothing,” he said, referring to recent polls. “The race is still a dead heat.”

Wadhams did agree with the Democrats on one important point, however. He said McCain shouldn’t have suggested reopening negotiations on the Colorado River Compact.

He shrugged it off as a mistake, however, commenting, “You can’t bat a thousand.”