Changes in suburbia make Colorado a new bellwether

The bustling Cariño Coffee shop in this Denver suburb just might be the new center of the political universe.

Locals drop by for a cup of coffee and a rolling political debate before heading off to errands or jobs at the engineering and tech firms that have sprung up in the area. All five people lingering around one table on this particular morning are registered as Republicans or independents, but only two plan to vote for John McCain for president. Two are supporting Barack Obama. One is flummoxed.

"One day I say, 'Yep, I'm for Obama, and the next day I say, 'Nope, I'm for McCain,' " says Ed Brown, 64, retired from the Air Force and Defense Department. On his mail-in ballot, he has marked a choice in every contest except the one at the top.

The influx and shifting allegiances of college-educated voters in suburbs like this one have helped turn Colorado from a reliably Republican state to one that some political analysts consider the nation's new bellwether. Similar demographic trends in Northern Virginia and along the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida have boosted Democratic prospects in those traditionally red states, too.

This is the political legacy of the 2008 election: fundamental changes in the electoral map and the parties, including which states and what voters are up for grabs. The emergence of the Mountain West as a battleground and Democratic inroads among suburban voters across the country are changes likely to reverberate well beyond the McCain vs. Obama contest Tuesday.

"This is the middle ground of America that in another year might have been easy territory for Republicans, but there's a lot of pain out in subdivision land," says Robert Lang, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. Economic anxiety, particularly over falling housing prices, and dissatisfaction with George W. Bush's record have cost the GOP ground in the suburbs and exurbs that were critical to his election in 2004.

Obama's overwhelming spending advantage on TV ads in Colorado and his more elaborate ground operation — he has 13 field offices in Arapahoe County alone, the same number McCain has statewide — also have boosted the Democratic ticket here.

"As Republicans, we've always said we can't win statewide unless we carry Arapahoe and Jefferson counties" in the Denver suburbs, says Colorado state Sen. Nancy Spence, whose district includes about half of Arapahoe. Now, she says, "we have to work a lot harder than we used to."

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's victory in the presidential election focused attention on Macomb County outside Detroit, which reached iconic status as home to the white, working-class voters who had been Democratic stalwarts but became known as Reagan Democrats. Since then, their support has boosted Republican candidates not only in Michigan but also in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In 2008, Arapahoe County could be the new Macomb.

For one thing, Colorado seems poised to replace Missouri as the nation's leading bellwether — the state most likely to reflect the nation's leanings. "I said in December '06 that if you tell me (who wins) Colorado, I will know who wins the White House in 2008," says veteran political analyst Bernadette Budde of BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee.

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