In the past four decades, Colorado has voted Democratic in a presidential race only once, in 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot sapped votes from George H.W. Bush. In the past four years, however, Democrats have won the governorship and control of both chambers of the state Legislature.
Says Gov. Bill Ritter: "The independent voter can no longer be counted on as reliably for Republicans," in part because Democrats are nominating different sorts of candidates. Ritter, who grew up in Arapahoe County when it was farmland, supports limits on abortion and is an avid outdoorsman.
Obama has done well in the state by offering pragmatic solutions to big problems, he says, appealing to "the practical streak" in voters here. The Illinois senator has avoided "getting wrapped around the axles by social issues," Ritter says. "He says we've got to deal with the economy; we've got to deal with health care."
Arapahoe County gave Bush a 9,213-vote edge over Democrat John Kerry in 2004, but last month Democrats gained a narrow registration advantage in the county for the first time in memory: 119,995 Democrats, 114,281 Republicans, 109,906 unaffiliated or other.
The competitive landscape in the Mountain West — in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, as well as less dramatic Democratic gains in Arizona and Montana — has eased some of the pressure on Obama to appeal to traditional working-class Democrats in the more familiar battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It creates alternate versions of an electoral map to win the White House.
There's no guarantee that Democrats will hold on to the voters who have been swinging their way this time, of course. "If they take office and fulfill some of the promises that they've made, they could build on those gains," Lang says. "But these are not in-the-bank folks."
Filling the high school gym
Three hours before the doors open, hundreds of people line up on a chilly fall day outside the Adams City High School gym in Commerce City, waiting to attend a rally by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden. By the time the Delaware senator speaks, 1,000 people have filled the bleachers inside.
Gary Valliere, 42, a contractor from Aurora whose Boston Red Sox cap shows his New England roots, says he was "a big McCain fan" who would have voted for him if he had won the Republican nomination in 2000. But McCain's choice of Palin as a running mate and the "negativity" of his campaign have been "deal breakers" for him, Valliere says.
"I'm voting for change and I think we need it more than anything right now," says Christine Fanning, 43, also from Aurora. Her pet-sitting business, called Christine's Critter Care, has suffered as the economy has faltered. "People aren't traveling as much as they were last year."
Wearing an Obama "History in the Making" T-shirt, she wants the next president to revive the economy and expand health care coverage. Lacking insurance herself, she now relies on a $25-a-visit subsidized clinic when she's sick.
At the rally, Lucy Molina, a 34-year-old organizer in one of the Obama campaign's 52 field offices statewide, makes a pitch in English and then Spanish for supporters to go vote and take their friends. She introduces Biden.