In Colorado, Presidential Race Is a Dead Heat

PHOTO: President Barack Obama uses a cellphone to call supporters during a visit to a local campaign office, Oct. 1, 2012, in Henderson, Nev.; U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Wings Over t

The presidential race in Colorado is close. So close that it's statistically tied.

In fact, it's the closest contest in any state in the country.

As President Obama and Mitt Romney square off tonight for their first debate in Denver, perhaps nowhere are the stakes higher than in a handful of counties just outside the auditorium's doors.

According to a recent New York Times/ CBS News/ Quinnipiac poll, Obama is edging out Romney 48 percent to 45 percent, a statistical dead heat, among likely Colorado voters.

Those numbers reflect an almost evenly split electorate, with one-third of Colorado voters Republican, a third Democratic, and another third independent.

Tune in to ABCNews.com on Wednesday for livestreaming coverage of the first 2012 Presidential Debate from Denver, Colo. Coverage kicks off with ABC News' live preview show at noon, and full debate coverage begins at 8 p.m.

Colorado had been an historically Republican state, but changing demographics throughout the West, particularly a growing Latino populace, has made Colorado more Democratic, making it the most purple state in the country and an electoral toss-up.

Colorado is also one of the fastest growing states in the country. Most of that growth is among Latinos, many of them second or third-generation Americans already registered as a Democrats. But some of that growth is also among wealthy Republicans in counties like El Paso and Douglas, which have seen a population boom tied to the state's growing energy and technology sectors.

In 2000 and 2004, the state voted for George W. Bush, but in 2008 voters opted for Barack Obama.

Much of Obama's fate then relied on Latino voters, a demographic that is moving left but which traditionally does not turn out in large numbers on Election Day.

In the past decade the number of Latinos in Colorado has increased from 14 percent to 21 percent, according to census data.

Nevertheless, if Obama can motivate Latinos, they might be a large enough bloc to sway the election, said E. Scott Adler, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"Latinos do vote, but not at the same rates as white voters. Obama needs them to come out and vote. There was an opportunity for Romney to go after Latinos, but he has focused instead on more traditional Republican groups like Evangelicals and the tea party," he said.

Obama is also putting his efforts into courting college-aged voters, a bloc instrumental in helping him win there in 2008. In recent weeks he has visited the college towns of Ft. Collins and Boulder.

"Latinos alone won't give Obama the state," said Adler, "that's why you're seeing him trying to get young people."

Given that a third of the state is made up of unaffiliated voters, both candidates are competing not just to turn out their bases but court independents as well. Independents in Colorado are mostly white men without college educations.

"They need those independent voters to win. They are trying to appeal to those voters, but have to figure out what is the issue that resonates with them. Is it jobs? Most would think of that first. But there are other things—clean energy… other traditional sources of energy and traditional environmental issues," said Adler.

"Obviously, [Romney and Obama] need to go after them," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "The question is what moves them. How many lean Republican, how many lean Democratic and what message do you send them."

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