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Obama Courts Voters In Colorado's 'Red' Counties
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Obama Courts Voters In Colorado's 'Red' Counties

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. John McCain started his day in Michigan. He'll also campaign in Wisconsin and Iowa today. Barack Obama is in New Mexico.

BRAND: Obama has spent most of the week in the Mountain West, in Colorado and Nevada. In a moment, we'll talk about why Colorado could be the state to win in this election.

COHEN: First, though, the Obama campaign says winning in Colorado means picking up Democratic voters wherever they can find them, even in the reddest parts of the state. Producer Adam Burke visited with Democratic organizers in solidly Republican Delta County.

ADAM BURKE: On a recent morning, a few long-time Delta County Democrats were gathered in a tiny concrete building just off Main Street in the city of Delta. The nine by 20 space seems more like a garage than an office, but Mary Jane Plaice (ph) says it looks better than it did a few weeks ago.

Ms. MARY JANE PLAICE (Democratic Organizer, Delta County, Colorado): I mean, this building was - you can't imagine what it looked like. We came, and we painted, and we cleaned up the muckey-muck.

BURKE: And when they threw a ribbon-cutting party in these cramped headquarters, 75 people showed up. They were overwhelmed.

Ms. PLAICE: They were out in the street, lined up in the street because we couldn't hold everybody in here, you know, on the sidewalk, on the side. For us, it was fantastic.

BURKE: Fellow organizer Carol Phelps (ph) agrees.

Ms. CAROL PHELPS (Democratic Organizer, Delta County, Colorado): When I got home, I still had people call me to say, I just saw something I thought I'd never see in Delta, Democrats spilled out in the street. It was great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: Now, it may seem like a political event with 75 people is small potatoes, but it's actually evidence that things are improving for Democrats in Western Colorado. Gretchen Nikolaeff (ph) moved to Delta County in the early 1970s, and she remembers the bad old days.

Ms. GRETCHEN NIKOLAEFF (Democratic Organizer, Delta County, Colorado): We went through a terrible time here in Delta County where our party was essentially defunct.

BURKE: They lost the old labor Democrats when the coal mines went non-union. Then the Reagan Democrats siphoned off even more of the party's rank and file. Nikolaeff says the pool of reliable volunteers and organizers shrunk to just a handful.

Ms. NIKOLAEFF: You would have a caucus, and you might be the only person there, which would mean you were the precinct committee person, you were the president of the caucus, and the secretary of the caucus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified woman: And the election judge.

Ms. NIKOLAEFF: And the election judge.

BURKE: To say Democrats are doing better in Delta County is really to say they're doing less poorly than in the past. Republicans still dominate local races, and they outnumber Democrats by more than two-to-one here. But close to a third of voters are unaffiliated. In 2006, when Centrist Democrat John Salazar won a seat in Congress, he even squeaked by in Delta by a few hundred votes.

Ms. NIKOLAEFF: Which means that, not only did he carry the unaffiliateds, he must have taken 20, 25 percent of the Republicans because otherwise, you know, he couldn't have won.

BURKE: In that same year, they helped push Democrat Bill Ritter into the Colorado Governor's office, not by winning Delta County, but by limiting his loss here to only 10 percentage points.

Ms. NIKOLAEFF: But that was a victory to us because previously, we might have lost by 20 or 30 or, you know, more than that, even.

BURKE: And that, Nikolaeff says, is the strategy for this November, to help Barack Obama win about 45 percent of the vote by attracting unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans. And winning? Well, that's still beyond her wildest dreams.

Ms. NIKOLAEFF: I would faint dead away if we actually carried Delta County for Obama. I would - I don't know. I might have to hang up my spurs, you know, because I don't think we could top that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURKE: Win or lose in November, Colorado's rural Democrats are getting more attention than they have in years. Barack Obama's visit to Grand Junction earlier this week was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman in 1948. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

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