COLORADO SPRINGS — The presidential race in swing-state Colorado is razor-thin and fiercely fought, a Rocky Mountains battleground with nine electoral votes that has been blanketed with $50 million in television ads.
In this state, every vote counts, which is why President Obama is contesting even the areas he has no chance of winning. A case in point: Colorado Springs, in El Paso County, a place with five military installations and deep evangelical roots. Both Democrats and Republicans say the community will hand the president a major defeat on Nov. 6.
Undaunted, Obama’s campaign continues to pour money and resources into this beautiful and deeply conservative area at the base of Pike’s Peak.
Obama won Colorado by nine points in 2008, but Romney now leads by a fraction of a percentage point, 47.8 to 47.6, according to an average of recent Colorado polls. If the president can shrink the margin here in El Paso County by even a little — he lost by 19 points in 2008 — he might be able to keep Colorado blue, his supporters argue.
“It makes me work harder and makes me a bit more dedicated than if it were incredibly easy,” said Rozanne David, 69, an Obama team leader in the suburb of Black Forest.
That means tens of thousands of door knocks and phone calls to registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters. It also means following up on the deluge of advertising that has vaulted Colorado Springs, a city of 426,000 people, into the 10 top media markets for political ads in the country.
In one week here in mid-September, for example, the number of television ads about the presidential race had nearly tripled, to 1,445, from the same period in 2008, according to data provided to National Public Radio from Kantar Media. During that week, Democratic ads outnumbered Republican ones, 757 to 688.
For a second-tier market, the effect can be numbing.
“I’m getting a bit irritated,” said Robin Curry, 55, a bartender at the American Legion post and a Vietnam-era veteran.
Bill Houghton, 68, who sits on the board of the Colorado Mountain Club, used pantomime to show his annoyance. Extending his arm, he pressed the mute button on an imaginary remote control.
Both men plan to vote for Obama, but they recognize they are in the minority in El Paso County. “I’m not the shining star around here,” Curry said, looking around an empty Legion hall on a cold afternoon.
“I don’t think Romney’s got a clue,” Curry said. “I know for a fact that corporate America is no way to run this country.”
But many Colorado voters believe that mind-set is exactly what the country needs, said Chris Walker, a Romney campaign spokesman.
“When you talk to people on the ground, there’s a level of disappointment in the last four years,” Walker said. “People are looking for a change in leadership.”
To solidify that support, Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, appeared in the Denver area on Tuesday. Ryan has spoken in Colorado Springs several times, Walker said.
The Republican ticket is attracting support from the military community here because of concerns about large, automatic cuts in defense spending, scheduled to take effect in January, that Congress approved to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis.
Although Republicans agreed to the cuts, as well as an equal cut in domestic spending, Romney has repeatedly assailed the president on the plan during rallies in states with a large military presence, such as Colorado and Virginia.
“People are thinking that’s just the wrong priority,” Walker said.
That sentiment was echoed by Jerry Rutledge, who owns a downtown clothing business that features a large Romney/Ryan sign on its outdoor facade.
“I like his energy policy. I like his tax policy,” Rutledge said of Romney. “To me, it’s all about the economy and jobs. We need to get this economy squared away.”
Questions about Romney’s shifting stance on issues such as abortion and gun control do not concern him. “It’s not on my radar,” Rutledge said.
Instead, the overriding issue is Obama, whose negatives appear to be more of a factor for Rutledge than Romney’s positives.
“I think it’s easier to talk about Obama. By and large, the country really doesn’t want his brand of socialism,” Rutledge said. “Obamacare was passed in the most disgusting manner. There certainly was no bipartisanship. He’s a very divisive man, maybe the most divisive president ever.”
In an area where the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, and Peterson Air Force Base are neighbors with the headquarters of Focus on the Family, a leading evangelical institution, any inroads into Republican support are hard-won, if they are won at all, here on the Front Range of the Rockies.
“If you look at the numbers for registered and unaffiliated, there are a lot of votes to be had there,” said a leading Democratic strategist in Colorado, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the campaign. “If you’re looking at the Republican side, you have to win El Paso County by a substantial margin” to offset Democratic strength in Denver and the Boulder area, where the University of Colorado is located.
The county has 149,125 unaffiliated voters and 94,597 registered Democrats, according to the Colorado secretary of state’s office.
Republicans can mine support among 177,456 registered voters, and they tend to participate. Only 37,003 of that total are listed as “inactive,” which means they did not vote in the previous even-year general election and failed to respond to postcard requests for an update on their status.
By contrast, the Democrats have 25,998 inactive voters in El Paso County, a much higher percentage of their registered total.
Still, Obama campaign officials believe the president can make headway. In 2010, Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, beat back a Republican challenge by less than 1 percentage point to retain his seat, in part by holding his opponent, Ken Buck, to 60 percent of the vote in El Paso County.
The Obama strategist said support might even be pried from the military bloc, following Romney’s dismissive comments about the “47 percent” of Americans who receive government assistance, many of whom are retired veterans.
“That’s not what they want to hear from their presidential candidates,” the strategist said.
For Tristan Holmes, a Marine special-forces veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, neither candidate has won him over. “Do either one of these people really have our best interests at heart?” asked Holmes, 25, who was wounded in Afghanistan and works as a store manager for Rutledge.
Still, he likes what he has seen of Obama’s wartime leadership.
“He’s a Democrat and the military isn’t supposed to like that, but I like him as a commander-in-chief,” Holmes said. When asked for an example, Holmes cited “the drone strikes in Pakistan. I’m all about that.”
But on Election Day, Holmes said, “if someone put a gun to my head, I’d probably vote for Romney.”
For Democrats and Republicans, even in deep-red El Paso County, that “probably” means there is work left to do.