Long ignored in the nation's presidential sweepstakes, Colorado's voters go to party caucuses tonight in a race that, at least for Democrats, has assumed unlikely importance and drawn unusual interest.
With the caucuses only a day before the closely watched Wisconsin primary, aides to Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson flatly predicted victory here over Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis when results are tallied from the state's 2,784 precinct caucuses.
"We're going to beat Dukakis," Jackson's state campaign spokesman, Chet Whye, said Sunday, while the Chicago-based minister preached Easter sermons to overflow crowds at two Denver churches. "We will beat him."
No Polls Published
No polls have been published of the 20,000 likely caucus-goers, and rival campaign aides and state party officials say internal campaign telephoning suggests the race between Dukakis and Jackson remains close, with a large number of undecided voters.
"We're reasonably optimistic," said Dukakis' state director, David Villarino. "It looks good." Dukakis has been endorsed by Gov. Roy Romer and Democratic Party Chairman Buie Seawell.
The third Democratic candidate, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., has the largest campaign staff, with 15 people on the payroll. He has campaigned on the western slope and in rural areas, but has failed to draw broad support, according to his state campaign director, Mike Veit.
Timing a Problem
"Having the caucuses the day after Easter has created great problems in terms of organization," Veit added. "A lot of people don't want to be bothered today. So we're in a stall, a holding pattern."
Finding out who wins and loses tonight will be no easy task, according to Seawell, the party chairman. Under a complicated four-tiered caucus process, Colorado's Democratic National Convention delegates will not be chosen until a state party convention on May 21.
Instead, state Democratic leaders will release results of non-binding voter preferences from 130 pre-selected precincts at 9 p.m. They then will estimate the number of county delegates each candidate has won from those precincts, and extrapolate the number of delegates likely to be chosen at the subsequent congressional district and state conventions. Party officials say the preference polls and delegate tallies could well conflict.
Tonight's process will lead to the selection of 45 delegates. Another six "super delegates" already have been chosen.
Seawell referred to the events preceding the caucuses here as "stagecoach-era politics."
"The nice thing for us is everyone showed up to campaign," he added. "We're usually totally ignored."
Campaign Over Weekend
Not this year. Although none of the campaigns began organizing until three weeks ago, Jackson and Dukakis took their increasingly bitter battle for front-runner onto the state's TV airwaves, into churches, a posh ski resort, a shelter for the homeless, union halls and ethnic neighborhoods over the Easter weekend.
Jackson completed a three-day campaign swing Sunday, his second visit to the state. In an unusual campaign stop Saturday afternoon, the populist preacher appeared before a packed ballroom of well-dressed, virtually all-white skiers and supporters at the historic Hotel Jerome in Aspen. Ski lift tickets cost $35 a day and rooms run up to $300 a night in the so-called Glitter City.
"People said, 'Why Aspen?' " said Mayor Bill Stirling, a Jackson supporter who organized the rally. "It's too glitzy. It's too white. It's too middle class. Well, we vote here too."
Dukakis was in the state for four hours on Saturday, visiting Denver's Samaritan House shelter and a library in Aurora, after a snowstorm canceled a previously scheduled trip on Thursday. Dukakis has spent more than $20,000 on TV ads, according to campaign director Villarino. He said Jackson had spent about $50,000 on TV ads, a figure Jackson officials declined to confirm.
Share Same Targets
Whatever the cost, the target was much the same. Both men pitched hard to attract blue-collar workers, liberal activists and Latinos. An estimated 20% of the state's 600,000 registered Democrats are Latino; only 4% of the voting population is black.
"The battleground seems to be the Hispanic community," Seawell said.
Latino voters helped Dukakis win Texas on Super Tuesday. For his effort here, he recruited high-visibility Latinos for top campaign positions. State director Villarino and Western states director Richard Ybarra are both sons-in-law of labor leader Cesar Chavez, and are organizers in his United Farm Workers union.
"We're making a big pitch for the Hispanic vote too," said Whye, Jackson's state coordinator. "But our Hispanic volunteers are local. We didn't pull them in from California, like Dukakis."
Appears With Jackson
Party officials expect a lower turnout than in 1984, when about 40,000 voters came out for their favorite son, Gary Hart. Hart, who dropped out of the race last month, appeared with Jackson at several campaign events Saturday and Sunday but did not endorse him.
Colorado has a "closed" caucus system, in which only voters registered for at least 60 days may vote in their party's caucuses. This may hurt Jackson, whose campaign has won support in other states by last-minute registration of new voters.
On the Republican side, Vice President George Bush is expected to easily overwhelm rival Pat Robertson for the state's 36 Republican delegates in an equally complicated caucus and convention process.
THE COLORADO CAUCUSES
THE STATE Population: 3,267,000 (1986 est.)
Racial/ethnic makeup: 85% anglo, 10% Latino, 3% black, 1% Asian, 1% Indian.
Economy: diversified manufacturing, mining, oil, tourism, agriculture. Unemployment rate (Jan. '88) 7.8%.
Major cities: Denver (capital), 500,000; Colorado Springs, 215,000.
THE CAUCUSES At stake in Colorado are 51 Democratic and 36 Republican convention delegates. The four-tiered caucus process is similar to Iowa's; actual convention delegates will not be chosen until the state conventions in late spring, but they will be allocated to presidential candidates in proportion to the preference of today's precinct caucus participants. Both caucuses are "closed"--only registered members of that party can vote.