GUY RAZ, HOST:
The presidential debates begin Wednesday night. The two candidates will square off at the University of Denver. The focus: domestic issues and the economy. And this year, the host state is a fierce battleground where voters are divided over the role of government and boosting the economy. From member station KUNC, Kirk Siegler has our story.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: One easy explanation for why Colorado is a swing state - most of its voters are concentrated around two population centers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Did you know that in midwinter, people in Colorado Springs may be playing golf or tennis in shirt sleeves, while others are skiing on the majestic slopes of Pikes Peak?
SIEGLER: Tourism-dependent Colorado Springs, home to military bases and lots of evangelical churches, votes overwhelmingly Republican. And then there's the Democratic Denver-Boulder metro area. Home to a recent wave of young people lured by high tech and clean energy jobs and the outdoor lifestyle, which is in full view here at this kayak course I'm standing by along a river in front of downtown Denver's giant REI outdoor store.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)
SIEGLER: Whether Colorado goes blue or red may hinge on whether people think the economy is looking up.
RICHARD WOBBEKIND: There's no doubt we're better than where we were four years ago. The question is, you know, are we where we should be?
SIEGLER: University of Colorado business school economist Richard Wobbekind says some sectors have been bullish, others sluggish. The state's unemployment rate is slightly higher than the national average. But one important trend has surfaced lately.
WOBBEKIND: We're adding jobs in the construction sector, and we were losing them at a very rapid pace a year ago.
SIEGLER: Skiing and tourism and farming are also starting to stabilize, though the drought could change that. Then there are the large federal research labs and private tech companies that employ thousands in the Golden and Boulder areas that coasted through the recession, buoyed by increases in federal spending.
TRACE BAKER: I have to say very definitely that I am better off than I was four years ago.
SIEGLER: Back then, aerospace software engineer Trace Baker was expecting to get laid off.
BAKER: But I do have to say, in the context of the current political debate, I'm in better shape because government is spending taxpayer money for the projects I'm working on.
SIEGLER: But like many parts of the country, you'll also hear concerns here that government is doing more to hurt than help the economic recovery. This is especially apparent in the suburbs where registered independent voters tend to outnumber Democrats or Republicans.
RHONDA RODMAN: This concerns me greatly because so many college graduates...
SIEGLER: Rhonda Rodman of suburban Jefferson County turned up at a Women for Mitt event recently. She considers herself an independent and has voted for Democrats and Republicans.
RODMAN: In fact, I have a friend right now who is trying to convince me to kind of go back to the other side. And honestly, I am willing to listen to any argument. If someone's got a good argument, a solid argument, I want to hear it.
SIEGLER: But this fall, Rodman plans to vote for Romney. She's a small business owner. She runs a holistic veterinarian business, a service she says is considered discretionary.
RODMAN: So I'm very much affected by the economy, and I am really concerned about our solvency down the road.
SIEGLER: Both presidential campaigns are actively courting suburbanites and Hispanics who now account for one of every five Coloradans. They turned out big in 2008 to support then-Senator Barack Obama who carried Colorado by nine points. The state Democratic chairman is indicative of who the party is trying to reach out to. Rick Palacio is gay, Hispanic and has a working-class background. At a recent debate, he said Mitt Romney's policies would be a setback.
RICK PALACIO: He would veto the Dream Act if it passed his desk. He's gone so far as to say the people should self-deport.
SIEGLER: But the economy, not immigration, is the main issue this election for Eleanor Carrillo. She's a retired teacher who attended a Hispanic Republican business forum in Jefferson County.
ELEANOR CARRILLO: Because gas prices, food prices, everything's going up. And we see no relief in sight.
SIEGLER: Still, for many in swing states like Colorado and Nevada, immigration and the economy are inextricably linked, even though only the economy will likely play heavily in the first debate. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.