Hispanic Vote May Tip The Balance In Colorado

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In Colorado, where Republicans have carried the past two presidential elections, a new poll shows Democratic Sen. Barack Obama edging rival Sen. John McCain by four percentage points.

Of the more than 1,400 likely voters surveyed for the Quinnipiac University/Wall Street Journal poll 49 percent preferred Obama, compared with 45 percent for McCain.

One reason for the Illinois senator's lead is his appeal among Colorado's Hispanic voters. The poll, released Sept. 23, showed support for Obama among this group at 68 percent to McCain's 26 percent.

Two key Hispanic politicians have been out trying to muster support in the swing state for their respective candidates.

The Democratic Campaign

Last Sunday afternoon, as the Denver Broncos were barely surviving the passing attack of the New Orleans Saints, a local political star returned to the ground game of political campaigning.

Former Cabinet Secretary Federico Pena, Denver's first Hispanic mayor, was out knocking on doors in the working class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood he used to represent.

Pena found a startling variety of responses. At one door, there was an enthusiastic greeting; at another just barking dogs. One homeowner engrossed in watching the Broncos game told the former mayor in no uncertain terms to "f*** off." There were also many who were indifferent or caught feeling guilty because they weren't registered to vote.

Through it all, Pena retained the cheery air of a politic pro. His canvassing team helped those who weren't registered fill out applications. They also distributed several applications for absentee ballots.

Twenty percent of Colorado's population is Hispanic, and most of them typically vote Democrat. But Hispanic turnout is usually low, so the "get out the vote" effort is crucial.

And most Coloradoans are expected to vote early by mail this year, so it's vital to get out applications for mail-in ballots. Historically, that has been a Republican strong suit, but Democrats are narrowing the gap this year.

In a conference room at his investment firm in downtown Denver, Pena said the major issues for Hispanics are the same as for everyone else, except for one: immigration. He says the immigration debate and immigration crackdowns have made many Latino citizens feel they have been discriminated against.

"That's an issue that is slightly below the surface, but it's resonating when it comes to Barack Obama vs. Sen. McCain, because people see Sen. McCain has abandoned his position on immigration," Pena says.

"[McCain's] conversion to the right wing of the Republican party has now aligned him with the very negative rhetoric of many of the members of his party and the anti-immigrant forces. And that has gotten out to Latinos around the country, and that's why Sen. McCain is doing poorly with Latinos around the United States."

In order for Democrats to carry Colorado, Pena says, they have to win big in Denver. They also have to win or run even in the swing counties outside the city, and they have to run in the high 30s or low 40s in GOP strongholds.

"The one unknown here is voter turnout," Pena says. "Four years ago, we had a very large voter turnout in Colorado. I predict this year we will beat that record. The other unpredictable is the youth vote. We're going to have an extraordinary youth vote. We've registered many, many people under the radar screen. Those two factors have not been polled — by either the state polls or the national polls — and that's, I think, the silver lining in our campaign."

The Republican Campaign

Former state Sen. Larry Trujillo, a Democratic officeholder turned Republican activist, has driven more than 100 miles from his home near Pueblo to visit the town of Monte Vista, about four hours southwest of Denver.

From the motel rooms at Kelloff's Best Western Movie Manor, customers can watch a movie through the windows on a giant screen outside. But Trujillo hasn't come to see a movie. He has come to distribute yard signs and bumper stickers to a dozen Republican activists from the San Luis Valley.

Local Republicans express enthusiasm about McCain's choice of running mate, Sarah Palin, but seem frustrated by what they see as a slow start to the campaign effort in Colorado.

"Where have you been?" one man asks. "Where has the McCain campaign been?"

In the meeting room at Kelloff's Restaurant, with a spectacular view of the San Juan Mountains behind him, Trujillo talks to the local leaders — several of whom are Hispanic, like him.

This is an old crowd. Trujillo introduces Rudolfo Silver Jaramillo, a retired county school supervisor who was a pilot in World War II.

"As a World War II veteran, and seeing what a concentration camp was all about in Weimar, Germany, and knowing what the next president, McCain, went through, makes me say that every veteran in the United States is committed to voting for him for what he went through for his country," Jaramillo says.

There are Colorado veterans who are vehemently opposed to McCain for voting against some Veterans Affairs spending, but the appeal to patriotism goes a long way with a group that has a strong history of military service.

At the McCain campaign office in Colorado Springs, one of 10 in the state, Trujillo talks about the Arizona senator's appeal in Colorado. (The Obama campaign has 26 offices throughout the state).

"McCain, I think, wanted to have good strong borders, but also have a work program to allow people to come in, be identified and then go back," Trujillo says. "And I think that's a plus-plus for McCain in Colorado."

Although Colorado Republicans assume they will lose the Hispanic vote, the question is by how much.

"I think you've got to get at least 25 percent of the Latino vote to do good," Trujillo says. "I think McCain will surpass that."

It looks like it's going to be close in Colorado.

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