By Ellen Miller
COLORADO STATESMAN WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND JUNCTION — Barack Obama took his campaign’s strategy of targeting Colorado into the heart of Republican country Monday and energized a crowd of nearly 6,000 people jammed into the Cross Orchards Living History Farm.
Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to speak in Grand Junction since President Harry S. Truman’s whistle-stop train campaign in 1948.
Major Republican candidates, however, frequently visit the GOP stronghold of Mesa County, where 37,911 registered Republican voters dominate 29,741 unaffiliated voters and 18,890 Democrats. Vice President Dick Cheney stopped in during his 2004 re-election campaign, and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole visited during his 1996 campaign.
The line to clear security ran nearly three-quarters of a mile from Cross Orchards, and a series of warm-up speakers had the crowd rocking before Obama took the stage.
“This many Democrats in Mesa County?” said Martelle Daniels, an attorney who volunteered for the party at the event. “Maybe not. But look at all the independents — and some Republicans.”
“Isn’t this about the coolest thing we’ve ever seen in Grand Junction?” asked Bill Haggerty, a retired Division of Wildlife spokesman who introduced Obama. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Cheryl and Gordon Gibson drove 120 miles from Montrose to see Obama.
“This is amazing,” said Cheryl Gibson, who is a precinct chairwoman. “It’s been crazy since the caucuses.”
State Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, hammered Republican Sen. John McCain for his comments last month that he would renegotiate the Colorado River compact.
“Sen. Obama will honor our regional agreement,” Curry said. “Or we can elect a president who would let our water flow to Arizona and California. That’s what’s at stake here.”
Sen. Ken Salazar and Gov. Bill Ritter both touted energy independence and water, setting Obama up for his 42-minute speech.
But the Illinois senator referred only in passing to water and natural gas, despite the drilling and exploration boom under way on the Western Slope.
He called for an end to oil imports from the Middle East in 10 years and said drilling alone won’t do the trick.
“As president, I will tap our natural gas, clean coal, nuclear energy, conservation and renewables,” he said. “You in Colorado are in the forefront of clean energy.”
Near the end of his speech, as he exhorted the crowd to canvass neighborhoods and make phone calls, he listed his stump issues and added, “if you want a president who will protect our environment and make sure that water is still flowing in the places that need it here in Colorado … I ask for your vote.”
“Call it Republicans for Obama,” said Steve Laiche, a former Mesa County prosecutor and a Republican.
Bob Denning, an active Democrat and retired hardware and lumber store owner, said he was impressed with Obama, “because I think he’s capable and honest. He’s a great hope for us.”
Ken Lipton, a rancher and Democrat from Ouray, said he was “happy to see him getting tougher on the scandalous things the Republicans are saying. He’s focused on the issues.”
Reeves Brown, a Republican who runs Club 20, the Western Slope’s promotional and lobbying organization, said the event was “just great. They couldn’t have asked for better. It’s hard to disagree with a lot of what he said.”
Still, Brown said, he will probably vote for McCain.
State Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, said the effect of Obama’s speech in Grand Junction probably will be felt in down-ticket races in Mesa County “because of the tremendous energy we’re seeing out here today. This certainly helps.”
Buescher said he’ll feel the effects of the event in more ways that one.
“It’s bright out here,” he said. “My head looks like a ripe peach. Why didn’t I think of sunscreen?”