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.

Democrats Seek To Rule The WestPlay

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.

"Whoever can grab the greater share of the attention of the Colorado independents is probably going to win the state's nine electoral votes," Schaller said, and then go on to win the presidency.

Nevada and New Mexico: Changing Landscapes

Moving west of Colorado to Nevada, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 50,000 -- the biggest gap in two decades.

Clark County is the fastest growing county in the United States, with 5,000 new residents moving there every month. It is home to the powerful Culinary Union, with 60,000 members who gave Obama their endorsement.

"We're very issues oriented," one culinary worker said. "We've been politically active for years. We've gotten people elected; we've gotten people taken out of office."

Then there's New Mexico. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by a little more than 300 votes. And, in 2004, President George W. Bush won by less than 1 percent.

"I grew up in New Mexico when people still asked, 'Do you have to get vaccines to go there?'" Teresa Brit-Asenap, a Canvasser, N.M., native, said. "For us to become a swing state in a presidential race, you're doggone excited about that."

New Mexico's rising Hispanic population has also changed the composition of the state's voters; with a Hispanic population of 44 percent, its state has the largest in the country.

Accordingly, Obama has focused on the Hispanic vote, saying that he will not take a single Hispanic vote for granted. His campaign has spent $21 million courting Hispanic voters this year.

"We've always been a swing state, but I think if you could do a swing state on steroids, that's what New Mexico is," state resident Brian Colon said. "We will determine who the next president of the United States is."