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This week, the race for the Republican presidential nomination moves back to the middle of the country. Tomorrow, Minnesota and Colorado hold caucuses and Missouri holds a primary. None of these events will actually commit delegates for the convention in August. But the campaigns will watch closely for trends in all three.
NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Colorado, where only Republicans can caucus now, but where independents may be the key vote in November.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: At the upscale Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, Scott Kardos is shopping with his girlfriend and her parents. He's 24 years old and just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He says he's not so interested in being either a Democrat or a Republican.
SCOTT KARDOS: I don't really identify with either party. A lot of the things I agree with the Republican side and a lot of things I agree on the Democrat side. So, can't really decide on either one. And I flip-flop pretty much every other election on who I'd rather vote for.
KAHN: Kardos is part of a growing national trend, especially in battleground states like Colorado. The centrist think-tank Third Way studied eight key states and found that both major parties are losing voters, while the number of independents continues to grow.
Analyst Lanae Erickson says in Colorado it's practically a three-way tie now in registration.
LANAE ERICKSON: Independents actually rose by nearly 10 percent in Colorado just since 2008. So, there's been a huge surge in independent voters. And so, as a proportion of the electorate, independents have really gained on both parties.
KAHN: That's not good news for Ryan Call, the state GOP chief running tomorrow's caucus here. Officials do not expect more than 10 percent of registered Republicans to show up. But Call says the caucus is still good for energizing the base and recruiting the volunteers who will help voter outreach, including to independents.
RYAN CALL: So, they're not getting a lot of calls right now. But it is a very important priority for us as a party to make sure we're reaching out.
KAHN: Brady Maughan, a registered independent, is glad he's not getting calls right now. He's turned off by politics and by both parties.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
KAHN: Maughan was at an outdoor Super Bowl party in Denver last night. The crowd was huddled around a big fire watching the game projected on a white sheet. Maughan says he's turned off by the bickering of the Republican candidates and doesn't want to be part of either party.
BRADY MAUGHAN: Especially right now, we want to blame Bush for the last eight years for the reasons why Obama hasn't succeeded. And we want to blame Obama for not fixing everything that needed to be fixed. And nobody wants to take responsibility for themselves.
KAHN: Maughan, who's 36 and works in advertising, has had to take pay cuts and take in a roommate because of the economic downturn. He was against the bank bailouts and wants less regulation. But he also has no health insurance, so he likes President Obama's health care policy.
Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli says independent voters are hard to pin down. They usually wait until the last minute to make up their minds.
FLOYD CIRULI: It just sort of makes our polling and our elections volatile.
KAHN: President Obama won Colorado by 9 percentage points. Nationwide, he captured 52 percent of the independent votes. But a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of independents now disapprove of the job the president is doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERLEADERS)
KAHN: Back at the Super Bowl party, Brady Maughan says he voted for George W. Bush twice and for President Obama last time. This year, he's not sure.
MAUGHAN: I'm going to vote for the person that I want to vote for. And hopefully that person puts the least amount of barriers in my way. That regardless of what happens, I got to take care of me. That's why I'm independent.
KAHN: Very independent.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think so. I try.
KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Denver.