As the rancorous contest for the Republican presidential nomination spreads across the nation's heartland, the leading candidates have begun to turn off swing voters, a setback in the party's quest to unseat President Obama.
Independents, the dominant political force in Colorado and other swing states, have been warming to Obama in recent weeks while souring on the Republican Party's top potential challengers, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, polls show.
Here in Broomfield, a bellwether Denver suburb, conversations with independents last week laid bare a shift in campaign dynamics that does not bode well for the Republicans vying to unseat the Democratic president. Though disappointment in Obama was widespread, so were negative opinions of Romney and Gingrich as their nasty scuffle drew more attention in advance of Tuesday's caucuses.
"He seems kind of weaselly," Renee Combs, 29, said of Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Combs, an independent who sells beverages wholesale to restaurants in Broomfield's flagship mall, Flatiron Crossing, was unsure whether she would vote for Obama again. But she described Romney as "one of those people who puts on a big front," echoing an argument of his GOP rivals.
Mike Butler, 52, a Broomfield independent who dislikes Obama, ruled out Gingrich as an alternative last month when the former House speaker proposed colonizing the moon. "We need that like a hole in the head," said Butler, a machinery salesman on disability.
Obama still faces a difficult path to a second term, particularly if the nation fails to sustain its modest job gains since unemployment peaked at 10% in 2009.
But as the Republican contest has unfolded in recent months, Obama's popularity has been climbing from the low point of his presidency. Polls show voters almost evenly split now between those who approve of Obama's job performance and those who disapprove. Obama also holds a narrow edge over Romney in head-to-head matchups and a wider lead over Gingrich.
Much can change in the nine months left before the election, but the trend for the Republican candidates has been especially troubling among independents expected to dictate the outcome in key states. A late January poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that 42% of independents had negative feelings toward Romney, up from 22% in November.
"There's no doubt that independent voters have been somewhat scared away from the Republican field, given the tone of the campaign and just how negative it has become," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll in New York.
By dint of the Republican contest calendar, independents in some general election swing states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada — have been exposed to a blast of TV ads casting aspersions on the GOP candidates' character and integrity.
In New Hampshire, where Romney won the Jan. 10 primary, a University of New Hampshire poll released Friday found Obama holding a clear lead over Romney in that state for the first time.
Voters in other swing states, such as Colorado, have been spared the brunt of the TV ads. But nationally televised debates and news coverage have nonetheless stoked bad impressions of the party's candidates.
"I can't say I'm enamored with any of them," said Edward Messier, 39, a Republican who stopped by Flatiron Crossing on his lunch hour. Messier, wearing a fleece jacket and white-rimmed sunglasses, said he voted for John McCain in 2008 but might switch to Obama this year because "things may be finally starting to turn around."
Messier mistrusts Gingrich because of his ethics transgressions as House speaker, an issue raised by Romney. Messier is also skeptical of Romney. "I don't know that he's been forthcoming with his finances," he said, voicing a concern raised by Gingrich.
Like Colorado as a whole, Broomfield swings back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in statewide elections. In 2004, President George W. Bush carried the state and county. In 2008, Obama won them both.
A suburb of about 56,000 people, Broomfield is easy to miss on the highway between Denver and Boulder. Scattered across foothills on the Rockies' front range, its generic middle-class houses and national retail chain stores make it indistinguishable from hundreds of similar communities, apart from its stunning vistas of snowcapped mountains.
"Broomfield is like everywhere but no place in particular," said Andy McPherson, who runs the Swift Originals imported goods store at Flatirons Crossing.
But Broomfield, like older suburbs in nearby Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, will play an outsized role in determining the fate of Obama and his Republican challenger, thanks to its status as a swing area of a swing state.
Dick Wadhams, a former state Republican chairman, said independents on the outskirts of Denver were disenchanted with Obama "and want to vote for a Republican, but they've got to like the one we nominate."
"It's not automatic," he said. "It's not 'anybody but Obama.' "
A cautionary tale for Republicans in Colorado is the 2010 defeat of the party's Senate candidate, Ken Buck. In a Republican year, Buck was roundly rejected by independents, a key factor in his loss. For the Republican presidential nominee, strictly conservative approaches on immigration, healthcare, abortion and other issues — already emphasized by the candidates — pose similar risks this year.
Given the disaffection of many of Obama's 2008 supporters — at a Broomfield thrift shop, independent John Lowe of Westminster said he was "disgusted" by Obama's record on Iraq and Afghanistan — the president is unlikely to duplicate the immense grass-roots operation of his last campaign in Colorado.
Another vulnerability is Obama's weak ties to the established political networks of Colorado's Democratic officeholders and party leaders. In 2008, his campaign team largely bypassed them. This time, however, those are "precisely the people they need to cultivate" for the reelection race, but until recently Obama's political team made little effort to do so, said Alan Salazar, chief strategy officer for Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat.
"My sense is that having won the state four years ago, the administration didn't put down roots here," he said. "I do think there was a missed opportunity."
Pam Alden, 52, an independent who manages the bakery at Safeway in Broomfield, is one of the swing voters Obama is unlikely to win over. "I think he's just a little too much talk," she said.
A more promising prospect is Karen Cernazanu, a 60-year-old esthetician. An independent, she voted for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, but she has not decided whether to back the president for reelection. Her business is down; skin care is a luxury in a slow economy. And her husband, a computer project manager, has been out of work twice in the last four years.
But Cernazanu likes Obama's proposal to raise taxes on the rich. "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever" for billionaire Warren Buffet's secretary to pay a higher tax rate than her boss, she said. And she doesn't blame the poor economy on Obama.
"He was handed a big basket of garbage when he came into office," she said. "I can't fault the man."