LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep.
Its starting to feel like election season, even though the elections for Congress are many months away. This morning, well get an update on the campaign.
WERTHEIMER: In a moment, well report on how the Tea Party movement plans to raise money. But well begin with a man who is not on the ballot - but will be the focus of many campaigns. President Obama holds a town hall meeting in Nevada today.
INSKEEP: Its part of a two-day swing through the West on behalf of Democratic Senate candidates in tough races. The Rocky Mountain region was friendly to Democrats in recent years. Now, Democrats are struggling.
Heres NPRs Scott Horsley.
(Soundbite of crowd: "Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!")
President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.
SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama may have enjoyed a pleasant flashback yesterday. As he took the stage in Denvers Fillmore Auditorium, more than 2,000 supporters filled the concert venues wooden dance floor, and the president said he was thrilled to be back in the Colorado capital.
Pres. OBAMA: Ive got some good memories of Denver, including one just down the road at Mile High Stadium.
(Soundbite of applause, cheering)
Pres. OBAMA: Some of you may have been there.
(Soundbite of applause, cheering)
HORSLEY: It was at the football stadium in front of a much bigger crowd that Mr. Obama accepted his partys presidential nomination in the summer of 2008. But 18 months later, that mile-high enthusiasm has lost a little altitude.
Pres. OBAMA: The fact of the matter is, is that this is a tough political environment. Im not telling anything - anybody anything they dont know.
HORSLEY: As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama won Colorado by nine points. But his approval rating in the state now is lower than his national average. The White House blames economic concerns. Despite the massive stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in Denver a year ago this week, unemployment nationwide is just shy of 10 percent.
Pres. OBAMA: There's still millions of people out there who are struggling, who are trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage. Theyre seeing their homes underwater. Theyre worried about whether they can find a job if theyve already lost the one that they had. And so, understandably, people are scared. And sometimes when people are scared, politics can get rough.
HORSLEY: The president was speaking at a fundraiser for Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, a political newcomer who was appointed to that post a year ago, when former Senator Ken Salazar became interior secretary. Republicans see a good chance to recapture the Colorado Senate seat in November, along with a seat from nearby Nevada, held by the Democrats' Senate leader, Harry Reid.
Professor BOB LOEVY (Political Scientist, Colorado College): If things tend to keep going unfavorably nationally for the Democrats, theyre going lose the Rocky Mountain West.
HORSLEY: Bob Loevy is a political scientist at Colorado College. He says this region is a high-altitude weathervane for the political winds sweeping the country.
Prof. LOEVY: The Mountain West has always voted with the entire country. As the country has softened in its support for President Obama, that trend is also hitting the Rocky Mountain West.
HORSLEY: And Republicans sense an opening. Colorados GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams says this year, its his troops who are fired up and ready to go.
Mr. DICK WADHAMS (Colorado Republican Party Chairman): As I travel around the state meeting with Republican audiences, there are huge crowds, enthusiastic, very fired up about the year. Also, you can see from the Tea Party rallies, theres an influx of new people into the process, many of whom are not Republicans. Theyre unaffiliated voters, even Democrats. And so I think thats indicative of the shift that has occurred in the last year.
HORSLEY: Wadhams says he never believed in the idea of a permanent realignment in the West, with red states turning reliably blue. He thinks this region is solidly purple, and likely to stay that way.
Mr. WADHAMS: The fact is, is that these states, especially Colorado, swing back and forth. Colorado is a very dynamic state. We have a lot of people who move in here constantly and because of that, the political fortunes of both parties go up and down.
HORSLEY: Democrats, including Mr. Obama, certainly are not conceding the Mountain West. The president told supporters in Denver last night that as hard as they worked in 2008, theyve got to work even harder this year. But Democrats seem to be setting their sights a little lower this time around. One woman at the Bennet fundraiser held a sign with the number 51 on it, as if to say the party that had a 60-vote lock on the Senate just a few weeks ago will now feel fortunate to hold on to a bare majority.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, with the president in Las Vegas.