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As Democrats Look West, Colorado Budges

Times Staff Writer

The colors are changing this autumn in Colorado -- from solid Republican red to something approaching a strong tint of Democratic blue.

A GOP stronghold from the mid-1990s through President Bush’s first term, Colorado has emerged as one of the Democrats’ principal prospects for gains in the 2006 election. Polls show Democrats holding an edge in most of the state’s key contests, including an open House seat and the battle between Democrat Bill Ritter and Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez for the governorship.

“Anything is possible, but if we were having this election today, the Democrats would be in control of Colorado, from the governorship to a majority of the congressional seats to both houses of the state Legislature,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based independent pollster.

If Democrats can maintain their advantages here, the results could not only tilt the local balance of power but reshape the national battlefield for the 2008 presidential campaign.

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Most Democratic strategists consider Colorado and three other Western states -- Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada -- critical targets as the party tries to expand its electoral map beyond the East and West coasts and the upper Midwest.

“Everybody in the Democratic Party realizes these days the new opportunity -- the place we can, and are, growing the vote -- is out West,” said Mike Stratton, a veteran Democratic consultant in Denver.

Necessity, as much as opportunity, is driving the increasing Democratic focus. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry directed money and attention toward the four states, largely because he concluded he had virtually no chance of cracking Bush’s hold on any Southern state.

That shift paid few immediate dividends. Bush swept the four states, running better in Arizona and in New Mexico (which he narrowly lost in 2000) than he had four years earlier.

But, compared with the 2000 results, Kerry cut Bush’s victory margin roughly in half in Nevada and Colorado. And in Colorado, moderate Democrat Ken Salazar won a U.S. Senate seat that had been held by a Republican, and Democrats swept to control of the state’s two legislative chambers.

This year’s election will test whether Democrats can expand their beachheads across the region and realistically target these states in 2008.

The four states share, to varying extents, common trends reshaping their political environments. All have rapidly growing populations, increasing the demand for public services. From 2001 through 2005, Nevada was the nation’s fastest-growing state, with Arizona ranked second, Colorado eighth and New Mexico 16th, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Latinos have increased their share of the population in each state since 2000, though their turnout in elections has lagged behind their growth in numbers. Still, with the Latino share of the population ranging from 43% in New Mexico to 19% in Colorado, politicians recognize that their success across the region depends in part on their standing with this slice of the electorate.

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In this year’s campaign, Colorado appears to offer Democrats their most fertile ground among the four states.

Recent surveys have shown Ritter, the former Denver district attorney, holding a double-digit lead over Beauprez. Polls also generally show Democrat Ed Perlmutter leading Republican Rick O’Donnell for the swing suburban Denver House seat Beauprez is vacating to run for governor. Democratic state Rep. Angie Paccione faces a tougher challenge against Republican Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave in a GOP-leaning eastern Colorado House district, but the challenger might surprise if Democrats generate a large turnout.

The state remains challenging terrain for Democrats: Republicans retain an edge of more than 170,000 in voter registration. But Colorado’s population growth is shifting its political agenda away from the socially conservative and anti-tax themes that dominated its politics, and buoyed GOP fortunes, through the 1990s.

“The whole rhetoric has changed in the past four or five years,” Ciruli said. “Instead of limiting government, it’s how to pay for government ... how to handle higher education, how to build roads.”

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Though religious conservatives remain a powerful force in Colorado -- James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is headquartered in Colorado Springs -- cultural arguments appear to have lost some of their urgency.

More pressing has been the debate over the state’s finances.

In 1992, Coloradans approved a constitutional amendment known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which imposed one of the nation’s most stringent limits on state spending and taxes.

But those limits pinched the state’s ability to meet the growing demand for schools, roads and healthcare. Last year, voters approved Referendum C, which suspended billions of dollars in tax refunds that the constitutional amendment would have required over the next five years.

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That vote has framed this year’s political environment in the state. Outgoing GOP Gov. Bill Owens, Democrats in the state Legislature, many leaders in the business community and Ritter endorsed the measure to suspend the tax refunds. Beauprez opposed it.

Ritter relentlessly highlights Beauprez’s stance, making it the centerpiece of his effort to cast himself as a moderate while portraying his rival as too ideological to solve the state’s problems.

“The people of this state want problem-solvers who are pragmatic and who won’t allow government to be polarized,” Ritter said in a recent speech.

As a candidate, the Democrat is more earnest than exciting, but his personal story has helped his effort to claim the center. A former Catholic missionary in Africa, he opposes abortion rights. And his experience in public office has come entirely in law enforcement.

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Though pledging to pursue a moderate course, Ritter is also promising a more energetic role for government. He argues that public spending for education and infrastructure can serve as a catalyst for economic growth. He promises to make Colorado a leader in the development of renewable energy, and says that by the end of a four-year term he will have formulated a plan to provide health insurance for every state resident.

Beauprez has responded with a two-pronged strategy. One is to run against the prospect that Democrats could control both the governorship and the state Legislature after November.

Democrats haven’t held unified control of Colorado’s government in more than 40 years, and Beauprez charges that such an alignment would produce a lurch to the left. “I think you would see the trial lawyers and the unions in charge,” he said.

Beauprez’s second main tack has been to challenge Ritter’s positioning of himself as a centrist; the Republican’s campaign has issued a flurry of statements portraying the Democrat as a liberal on gun control, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration. Beauprez, a former banker and farmer who served two terms in the U.S. House, is a personable campaigner with an engaging presence on television. But even Republicans are mixed on whether he’s charting a course that will overtake Ritter.

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Some worry that his emphasis on hard-edged social issues will drive away swing voters in the suburban Denver communities that typically decide statewide races.

Walt Klein, a Republican media consultant, doesn’t exclude the possibility that Beauprez’s strengths as a campaigner, and the GOP’s registration advantage in Colorado, will overcome Ritter’s apparent edge.

But Klein recognizes that if Republicans cannot hold the line in the state this year, they are certain to face an even greater Democratic push in the 2008 presidential race.

“If [Democrats] are just a little bit successful in this election cycle ... Colorado will be seen as a state that is in play,” Klein said, a judgment that applies to other sprawling desert states as well.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Democrats closing in?

Democrats hope to make gains in Republican-leaning states in the Southwest this November, most prominently Colorado, where changing populations have intensified political competiveness. Party strategists believe strong showings this year would boost Democratic chances of winning these states in 2008’s presidential race.

2004 presidential results

Colorado

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President George W. Bush: 52%

Sen. John F. Kerry: 47%

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Arizona

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President George W. Bush: 55%

Sen. John F. Kerry: 46%

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Nevada

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President George W. Bush: 50%

Sen. John F. Kerry: 48%

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New Mexico

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President George W. Bush: 50%

Sen. John F. Kerry: 49%

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Source: Almanac of American Politics

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