The top Democratic and Republican presidential contenders, Barack Obama and John McCain, brought their campaigns to the deserts of the American West on Monday, kicking off what is shaping up to be a fierce contest for the region in November.
The majestic vistas and suburban subdivisions of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico were among the most contested territories of 2000 and 2004, although they were often overshadowed by the struggle for electoral votes in Florida and Ohio.
Four years ago, President Bush defeated Democrat John F. Kerry in the three states by a combined 127,011 votes -- just 8,412 votes more than his margin in Ohio. Had Kerry won the three Western battlegrounds, he would be president.
This year, with political winds blowing their direction across the region, Democrats see an opportunity to pull the states into their column. That could be especially important as Obama's prospects dim in onetime swing states in the East, such as West Virginia.
"There are a limited number of possibilities to change the electoral map for Democrats," said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist. "These three states figure prominently."
The Democratic presidential nominee has won Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico only once in the last 40 years, however, and Obama, an Illinois senator from Chicago, may have to overcome an image as a big-city liberal.
In McCain, the Republicans have their first Westerner as presumptive nominee in a quarter-century. The Arizona senator, whose independent streak and strong military credentials have always played well in the region, is aggressively defending his turf.
On Monday, McCain traveled to Albuquerque, where he gave a spirited defense of his commitment to veterans -- despite opposing Senate legislation that would increase college aid for those who have served in the military. And he renewed his warning about a premature exit from Iraq, although he tried to distance himself from the Bush administration with criticisms of the handling of the war and mistreatment of veterans in military hospitals.
"The American people have grown sick and tired of the war in Iraq," McCain said as he stood under white awnings at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial, the Sandia Mountains rising in the distance. "I too have been made heartsick by the many mistakes made by civilian and military commanders -- and the terrible price we have paid for them."
McCain then urged patience. "As long as there is a reasonable prospect for succeeding in this war, then we must not choose to lose it," he said.
Two hours later, Obama gave his own Memorial Day speech in New Mexico's second-largest city, Las Cruces, where he criticized the administration as failing to maintain military staffing levels and to care for veterans after they return home.
"They are not being diagnosed quickly enough; they are not getting the services that they need quickly enough," he said.
He added that female veterans "are being most neglected in this area," calling for creation of facilities specifically to serve their needs. "Oftentimes our women service members are more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, partly because there's a sad but real problem of sexual harassment and sexual abuse."
McCain and Obama are scheduled to make stops in Nevada and Colorado over the next two days. Bush will travel to the Southwest today to raise money for McCain and other Republicans in New Mexico and Arizona.
"This game is on," said Joe Monahan, an independent political analyst in New Mexico who said Monday's visits would probably be the first of many by the presidential candidates in the months to come.
(Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- chasing the Democratic nomination despite Obama's commanding lead among party delegates -- campaigned Monday in Puerto Rico, which holds its primary Sunday.)
Four years ago, Kerry and Bush each saw political opportunity in the demographics of the desert. New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada have a combined 19 electoral college votes, compared with 20 for Ohio and 21 for Pennsylvania.
Democrats ran aggressive campaigns to organize new voters in the growing metropolitan areas of the three Western states. And the GOP pursued Latino voters and mobilized the conservative rural voters who have made most of the inland West reliably Republican in recent decades.
By some estimates, Bush won as much as 44% of the Latino vote in New Mexico. "That cost John Kerry the state," said Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster who has been measuring public opinion in the state for a quarter-century.
A similar strategy helped Bush take Nevada and Colorado, where he offset Kerry's margins in Las Vegas and Denver with big turnouts in GOP strongholds elsewhere.
This year, there are signs of Democratic momentum in the region as the party has taken statehouses and congressional seats.
In Colorado alone, Democrats have won control of the Legislature and the governor's mansion and picked up a Senate seat and two House seats in the last two elections.
Obama also is poised to emerge from a competitive Democratic primary campaign against Clinton that brought out tens of thousands of new voters.
In Nevada -- where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the powerful Culinary Union have been building an increasingly powerful Democratic political machine -- the party now enjoys a nearly 52,000-voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Four years ago at this time, there were nearly 12,000 more active registered Republicans than Democrats in Nevada, according to the secretary of state's office.
"That's something that Republicans should be very concerned about," said Chuck Muth, a conservative Nevada commentator who heads a grass-roots organizing business.
McCain also doesn't enjoy the same relationship with rural conservatives that Bush was able to count on.
And his positions favoring nuclear waste storage in Yucca Mountain and opposing some sports betting put him on the wrong side of two issues that are important to many Nevadans.
"You could run a pretty decent campaign against the guy," said political columnist Jon Ralston.
Republicans nonetheless enter the battle for the West with distinct advantages.
As a native son and war hero who has a record of pushing immigration overhaul, McCain has an entree with Latino voters, who many strategists believe will be critical again this election.
On Monday, his campaign released a Web ad targeting Latino veterans. And McCain will continue to focus on those voters in the months ahead, his strategist Charles Black said.
Obama, in contrast, has struggled to win support among Latinos throughout the primary season.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Las Cruces, he acknowledged the challenge. "We're going to have to work hard to get known by the voters in this region," he said. "But I think the message of changing Washington, delivering on universal healthcare, having an energy policy that is actually coherent, I think that is all critically important to the people here."
At a time when Democrats are winning elections in the West wearing cowboy boots and distancing themselves from the Eastern party establishment, however, Obama enters the general election campaign with a distinctly non-Western profile.
Betty Ethridge, a 59-year-old Democrat wearing a denim jacket with military and POW commemorative patches, said after listening to McCain in Albuquerque that she simply trusted him more than she did Obama.
Ethridge said she objected to Obama's "Muslim upbringing." Reminded that Obama was a Christian, Ethridge said: "Now he is.
"His statements lead me more to believe he's more Muslim than he is Christian," she said. "He wants to change America."
Obama's voting record is among the most liberal in the Senate, and he has taken positions on gun control that gun-rights groups plan to target.
"The question is, Can it be packaged to portray Barack Obama as your typical Beltway or urban liberal who is elitist and insensitive to our Western values?" said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Colorado. "That will be critical."
Reston reported from Albuquerque, Levey from Washington and Martelle from Las Cruces.