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Changing Colo. poses challenge to Republicans

A shift from conservatism

Mitt Romney held a campaign rally today in Grand Junction, Colo.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney held a campaign rally today in Grand Junction, Colo.

DENVER — Republicans here will tell you that Colorado’s bedrock conservative values remain as solid as the Rocky Mountains. But a string of high-profile losses against Democrats in recent years has raised doubts about the party’s ability to prevail against President Barack Obama in a key battleground state in November.

There’s little doubt Mitt Romney will be victorious after today’s Republican caucuses in Colorado. Four years ago, Romney won convincingly here against Senator John McCain of Arizona, the eventual Republican presidential nominee. Months later, however, Obama handily beat McCain, adding to the sense of disarray in a rapidly growing state that just a generation ago was reliably Republican.

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For all the talk about Colorado as a pivotal swing state this fall, Republicans have little to show for it in recent years. Republicans in 2010 had mile-high hopes to take the governor’s mansion, and the national party had counted on Colorado to join the tide that narrowed the gap in the US Senate. Instead, Democrats won both seats.

Should Romney prevail as his party’s nominee, Colorado could provide the biggest test of his ability to organize his troops and capture highly prized independent voters in a head-to-head contest against Obama.

Ryan Call, the new chairman of the Colorado GOP, concedes that challenges lie ahead, but he speaks confidently of delivering his state for the eventual Republican nominee.

“The pressure I feel is pressure I feel everyday,” Call said. “I’ve put this on my plate, and there are a lot of people, nationally and locally, counting on us to deliver victory in November.”

While national Republicans, aligned super PACs and the eventual candidate himself will be pouring resources into the state, much of the burden will have to be carried by state-level lieutenants who will have to organize volunteers and mobilize get-out-the-vote operations.

“There used to be a time when Republicans could win by appealing to their base. But with the state divided” among the two parties and independents, “that’s basically a recipe for disaster,” said Robert Duffy, who chairs the political science department at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

Colorado’s Latino vote could be of particular concern for Republicans. As in Florida, Latinos now account for a fifth of the state’s population and about one in every eight registered voters. But unlike Florida, home to a substantial population of Cuban Americans who generally favor Republicans, Latinos in Colorado are more likely to lean toward Democrats, analysts say.

The Obama campaign has been careful to cultivate support among Hispanic voters who might harbor reservations against Republicans, particularly Romney because he has taken a harder line than some of his opponents on immigration issues.

What’s more, transplants from other states, such as California, are reshaping the state’s political dynamics, according to analysts and longtime residents.

But the big prize here is independent, unaffiliated voters, who account for about a third of all those registered. The rest of Colorado’s registered voters are split about evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

If conventional wisdom holds, whoever wins the majority of the independent vote will likely win the election. In recent years, independent voters have leaned toward Democrats in key statewide races.

In 2010, independent voters helped US Senator Michael Bennett fend off a fierce challenge from his Republican opponent.

The race for governor was not even close, and resulted in a huge embarrassment for the GOP, whose nominee garnered just 11 percent of the vote after a campaign rife with controversy. Former Denver mayor and brewpub entrepreneur John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, easily beat his closest competitor, a former Republican running as a third party candidate.

“The Republicans were nominating very conservative, very socially conservative candidates for office and voters were rejecting them,” said Duffy.

“With Romney having to run so far to the right during the primaries, it could cause problems for him as he moves back to the middle and has to confront what he’s been saying during the primaries.”

Independent voters, of course, are notoriously difficult to predict, especially out West where a cowboy mentality that revels in bucking trends and expectations still pervades the highland prairies and glacier-capped mountains.

Of the dozen states that many consider among the swing states that could determine the presidency, three lie out West -- Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. They provide fewer than a tenth of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, but could nevertheless help a candidate reach that threshold in a tight race.

“Colorado’s demographics speak well to the electoral map the president will be trying to put together more broadly,” said Matt Inzeo, the spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party. “We’re a very good bellwether for the region.”

Obama’s public approval has risen in recent months as the economy begins to improve -- Colorado’s unemployment rate stands at 8 percent, slightly lower than the national average -- and in a head-to-head contest with Romney, Obama is in a virtual tie in important battleground states, according to a Gallup poll taken last month.

Yesterday, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama widening his lead against Romney among registered voters nationally, 51 percent to 45 percent -- and by even wider margins against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In what could be a deeper sign of trouble for Romney, his standing among independents has fallen precipitously. A poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal taken last month showed that 42 percent of self-described independent voters held a dim view of Romney, nearly double from November.

Even supporters express pessimism. “I don’t think he stands a shot,” said Brad Beale, a transplant from Framingham, Mass., who has lived in Colorado for 18 years. “It’s not a Republican state anymore. Now it’s a bleeding-liberal state.”

In addition to today’s caucuses here, Minnesota Republicans will caucus and in Missouri there will be a non-binding primary. Maine Republicans started caucusing last Saturday and will finish next Saturday.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.
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