Obama, McCain Tussle over Western States

Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama spent much of this week crossing each other's jet trails around the Southwest, a region that could be closely contested in the November election.

In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly won Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Since then, voters there have shown strong interest in Democrats. Though the three states offer a total of just 19 electoral votes, in 2004, that would have been enough to tip the election in Democratic Sen. John Kerry's favor.

This week, Obama could be found doing what Western politicians do to get elected: talking about bilingual education, lamenting the housing crisis and meeting with Native American leaders.

There is reason to believe a Democrat could do well in the Southwest. Take Colorado as an example: Just five years ago, it looked like a solidly Republican state. Since then, Democrats have snatched from the GOP the governor's seat, both houses of the state legislature and three seats in Congress.

Even though McCain calls the Southwest home, he was out defending his turf this week. On Tuesday, he chose Denver to deliver a speech on nuclear weapons and to push for a repository to store spent nuclear fuel — a position that is popular in Nevada.

"It's even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear-fuel storage facility in Yucca Mountain in Nevada," he told supporters.

Key Issues for Southwest Voters

Mary Jane Knokes is an independent voter from Castle Rock, Nev., and she is one of those swing voters the candidates are trying to woo. She thinks McCain could do well in the Southwest because she says he has more experience than Obama.

"I think if people are looking for that, they're going to look for John McCain," she said.

Obama has done well in the region too, attracting large crowds and important superdelegate endorsements.

Roy Romer was a Democratic governor of Colorado for two terms in the late 1980s and 1990s. The state was strongly Republican at the time, but he succeeded by being what some in the West call "an independent cuss."

"Frankness and candor is very important to the West," he said, adding that he sees those qualities in Obama, especially when he opposed the gas tax holiday that McCain and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton supported.

"It took political guts to say, 'No, I'm not gonna go there.' And the other two candidates in the race did go there. Now, that's a pragmatic, tough, cool decision, and I think the West responds to that kind of political decision-making," he said.

Voter Vivian Stovald appreciates Obama's speaking style. She attended Obama's speech at a high school outside Denver on Wednesday. Stovald says she's been a Democratic activist for years.

"It got to a point speeches would go in one ear and out the other," she said. "I didn't hear them anymore. Not this time."

Growing Influence of the Region

When Democrats decided to hold their national convention in Denver, the importance of the Southwest became clear, and that goes beyond this election, according to Tom Schaller. He is a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who says the Southwest is growing fast.

"By 2030, that's going to be a region that has 34, 35 electoral votes —that's now Texas, right? So, in the long term, it's a good investment," he said.

One of the key questions is how Latinos in the Southwest will vote. They are overwhelmingly Democratic and in the primaries, Clinton has been their candidate. A recent Gallup poll shows Obama as a narrow favorite among Latino Democrats.

Polls also show that McCain — with his moderate views on immigration — has more appeal with Latinos than any other candidate his party could have chosen.

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