How To Woo Voters In The Rocky Mountain West

Correction Aug. 20, 2008

Some versions of this story said, "The region’s largest state — Colorado — has always tended to vote more Democratic when there’s been a Republican administration in office." Montana is the largest state in the region.

Democrats are optimistic that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama can win big in the Rocky Mountain West, where residents traditionally have voted Republican. Thats because these "red" states have been looking a little more "blue" lately.

Five years ago, every state in the region had a Republican governor. Today, most of them are Democrats, but not everyone thinks that means Obama will have an easy win here over his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The Democrats winning in the interior West are more conservative than Obama, says Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College.

"They're not left-wing liberals. They tend to be business-oriented. … In many ways they resemble moderate Republicans," Loevy says.

He suggests that Obama might want to take a few lessons from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO). Coloradans elected the cowboy-hat-wearing former state attorney general in 2004. Salazar suggests that Obama could make a connection with Colorado voters by talking about the issues that matter locally.

"One of the ways for Sen. Obama to win the West, frankly, is to understand that we have an important priority that we put on our land, our water and our wild places here in this state," Salazar says.

But even more important than that, for a Democrat to win in this region, he has to convince voters that he isn't a liberal.

"I think they need to be a whole lot more moderate on environmental issues. A lot more respectful of state's rights," says Republican Bobbie Frank of Cheyenne, Wyo. In her state, Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1, yet voters overwhelmingly picked Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal over a conservative Republican in the last election.

There is some evidence that Obama is moving toward the center.

"We saw a little bit of that movement on the issue of offshore oil drilling," Loevy says. Obama recently appeared to soften his opposition to some drilling.

Loevy says Obama also has statistics on his side because Colorado has tended to vote more Democratic when a Republican administration has been in office for eight years.

Given that, Obama should be well ahead in polls here, but every poll taken in Colorado has shown the race is a toss-up.

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