Front Range, Front and Center

Colorado is in play in the presidential election, and Democrats can thank Latino voters.

| Wed Oct. 13, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

A couple of months ago, Colorado was solid Republican territory. Today, it's a swing state very much in play in the presidential election. With a tight Senate race that's tilting Democrat, a growing Latino population, a huge upsurge of new voters, and an awfully weak economy, the state is up for grabs, and both campaigns are spending time and money there to secure its nine electoral votes. Just yesterday, George Bush spoke in heavily conservative Colorado Springs while John Edwards campaigned up I-25 in Commerce City, a working-class suburb of Denver. According to Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann, the investment by both campaigns in Colorado speaks volumes:

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"Candidates do not spend their scarce resources, especially here three weeks out, in states that are secure and locked up or in states that are beyond the realm of possibility. Colorado has gone from being a complete spectator in the political process to being at the epicenter of the action."

The senate race, between Democrat state Attorney General Ken Salazar and Republican chairman of the Coors brewing company, Pete Coors, is too close to call. Neither candidate established a firm lead following last Sunday's nationally televised debate on NBC's "Meet the Press." Coors, a political neophyte, hopes that his brand name and Bush's coattails will translate into votes. And Salazar, the first Latino ever elected to state-wide office, feels confident because of hugely increased voter rolls and what's expected to be a heavy turnout of Latino voters.

An estimated 90,000 Latinos have moved to the Front Range since the 2000 presidential election and they now constitute roughly 19 percent of the population in Colorado. Both sides are heavily courting the Latino vote in Colorado and elsewhere but, thus far, the Republican Party is having difficulty attracting Latino voters.

However, only 45 percent of eligible Latinos voted in the 2000 election, and Democrats, to make a difference in the Senate and Presidential races, need a much better turnout. Federico Peña, Denver's first Latino mayor and former energy and transportation secretary under President Clinton, understands that and hopes 60 percent turn out this time:

"Twenty one years ago, I was running for mayor of Denver. One of the reasons I won was that the Hispanic community voted in record numbers."

Democrats must get that kind of historic vote this year as well. And the latest registration statistics suggest that, whether Bush or Kerry wins the state, a record number of Front Rangers will vote on November 2. The Denver Post reports today that a overwhelming glut of new voters has county clerks scrambling to finalize registration forms and election rolls:

"County clerks registered more than half of this year's new voters in the past month alone. Records show that 140,111 voters were added to Colorado's registration rolls between January and early September. More than 160,000 have been added since the last official count in early September."

With thousands of new voters added each day, many believe Colorado is headed toward Florida-like chaos. Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson, a Republican, today accused Salazar of not doing enough to prosecute voter fraud.

Then there's Amendment 36, a ballot initiative that, if passed, will divide Colorado's electoral votes between the two candidates -- but will most likely face challenges in court, putting the election in doubt for weeks or even months.

But much still rests on how well Salazar does against Coors in the race to replace Republican (and former Democratic) Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. As Sam Rosenfeld boldly predicted in The American Prospect, Democrats could be on the verge of reclaiming the Front Range -- after a decade of Republican-rule -- on the strength of Salazar's maverick appeal and tested political strategy:

"Indeed, the Senate candidate is good and solid enough that he just might turn out to be the star that pulls everyone else up -- including Kerry. Salazar is the only Democrat to win statewide office in Colorado since 1994; he did it twice. Decked out in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, he has a mellow, dusty charm that nicely channels the populist appeal of his upbringing. (The Colorado press loves to recount how he grew up without electricity or running water, on a San Luis ranch where his family had worked for more than 150 years.) Salazar's policy stances are moderate but hardly heterodox for a Democrat, yet his persona conveys something of the independence and bipartisan appeal that the popular Democrat-turned-Republican Campbell boasts."
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