Curtain Rises On Colorado Caucuses

Colorado holds its Republican caucuses on Tuesday. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have focused their attention there recently. The state will also be a key battleground in the general election contest. From Denver, Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports.

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With Mitt Romney, the winner in the Nevada caucuses, attention now shifts to Colorado. Romney won the caucuses there in 2008. But the former Massachusetts governor doesn't seem to be taking it for granted this go around, and neither are some of the underdogs in the race.

Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC has more from Denver.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Mitt Romney took a quick break between events in Nevada yesterday to head to Colorado.

MITT ROMNEY: We're delighted to be here in Colorado Springs, a place of great beauty...

SIEGLER: Speaking at a rally in the Republican stronghold, Colorado Springs, Romney continued to narrow his attacks on President Obama, not once mentioning his GOP rivals.

ROMNEY: We elected this president to lead. He chose to follow. Now it's time for him to get out of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGLER: President Obama carried this state handily in 2008, but neither party is writing it off this time. Changing demographics, including a ballooning Hispanic population, have led to big gains for Democrats here in recent elections.

The state's new Hispanic Democratic Party chairman, Rick Palacio, this week took direct aim at Romney. He said Romney's position on illegal immigration will alienate Latino voters in Nevada and Colorado come November.

RICK PALACIO: Romney has taken a page from the Tancredo playbook.

SIEGLER: That's Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman. Tancredo ran for president four years ago on an anti-illegal immigration platform. This week he gave his influential endorsement to Rick Santorum.

TOM TANCREDO: This thing is far from over, and that's important for you to understand, that this race has just begun.

SIEGLER: Rick Santorum was back campaigning in Colorado yesterday, after spending two full days here earlier in the week.

RICK SANTORUM: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good morning.

SANTORUM: Thank you for having me here in your club...

SIEGLER: Wednesday he told the Arapahoe County Republican Men's Club that he's the candidate who can unite conservatives, and win in crucial-swing states like this one in the general election.

SANTORUM: You have someone in this race who will not be the issue in the race. You will not have to worry every day when you open up the paper, oh, what did he say today?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SANTORUM: What planet are we going to colonize next?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGLER: Newt Gingrich has been noticeably absent here but has scheduled a pair of appearances in the state tomorrow.

Gingrich and Santorum are courting social conservatives. But it's not clear how much clout that block has in Colorado, which is known for its independent-minded voters and libertarian streak.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul held three well-attended rallies of his own here this week. At Colorado State University, he told supporters to ignore the pundits.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: They had no idea that people like you are out there and saying that one of the main reasons why you are interested in our campaign is because we do have a new foreign policy, one designed to protect this country but not to be the policeman of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: Paul's stances on foreign policy and ending the war on drugs are appealing to some younger voters like freshman Garret Ire.

GARRET IRE: Ron Paul is different. He is unique and he is outgoing. He says the truth and he's not afraid to do so.

SIEGLER: Now the big question is whether Colorado Republicans can build similar energy around Mitt Romney. He did just win the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper, The Denver Post. But local news reports this week also blasted him for holding his Colorado Springs rally in a manufacturing company that got stimulus money.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

SIEGLER: Still, outside that rally, Joe Roach said he's not worried that Romney has yet to really energize the base.

JOE ROACH: And by the time November comes, there'll be plenty of energy because the alternative is terrible.

SIEGLER: Only registered Republicans can vote in Colorado's caucuses, which take place Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.

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