Democrats Court West's Independents

Denver and the Rocky Mountain West may be the future of the Democratic Party.

With traditionally red states shifting color schemes, Colorado has become a highly competitive battleground state for the White House, political experts say.

Democrats have not held a convention as far west as Colorado in 80 years, with the exception of California. The convention has not been held in Denver in 100 years.

But this year's convention location is no coincidence; it represents a focus on the West as a key political region in the Democratic playbook, observers say.

"I think the road to the White House could very well come through the West," Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, told ABC News' Charles Gibson today.

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Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has focused Democrats' attention on Western states, like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Although Democrats have had limited success in these states in elections past, carrying Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada only twice in the last 60 years, Obama's campaign appears to believe there's an opportunity this year.

Colorado's Changing Colors

Republicans were in total control of Colorado's state government four years ago. Now, however, the state Senate and House are both in the hands of Democrats; Colorado might have two Democratic senators come election time.

"It's probably not a blue state ... not a red state," Ritter said. "I'd say it's definitely purple."

The shift in power is a combined result of pragmatism on the part of Democratic leaders and frustration with Republicans' main issues, Ritter said.

"It has to do with the fact I think that the Democrats that have been elected are centrists, that they're pragmatic, that they're willing to tackle big issues," he said. "But also by a frustration with things that the conservatives made their mainstay: guns, and gays and abortion, instead of education, and transportation and issues like health care that really matter to people and are big issues and need tackling."

Another component of Colorado's power shift has been a huge influx of new voters.

Lynn Garrel and Dale Morris, both registered Democrats, moved from California's Bay Area to Steamboat Springs, west of Denver.

"People like us want to move to a beautiful area like Steamboat," Morris said. "And they bring who they are with them."

And for many like Morris, that means more Democrats in regions that were once Republican strongholds, putting the region back in play this election cycle.

Courting Independents

Rather than adhering strictly to party lines, Colorado voters will support a candidate based on his or her personal message, Ritter said.

"I think that may be the most important point about Colorado and really the West, is that they'll look to an individual for a message that resonates with them, more than I think they'll look necessarily to their party," Ritter said.

Colorado's independent voters make up at least a third of the voting population.

"People who are registered as independents defaulted Republican and they quit doing that," Ritter said, assessing the Colorado electoral map. "And now their vote is really up for grabs."

But the question for Democrats remains how to woo independents to their ticket?

Thomas Schaller, author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South," believes that a Democratic victory will come by winning pivotal independents in Mountain States.

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