Candidates Court Mountain West

Barack Obama and John McCain stumped across the Mountain West on Saturday, intensifying their battle for a region that has never enjoyed so much attention in a presidential race.

Indeed, after McCain visited Albuquerque, N.M., on Saturday, Obama was scheduled to hold a rally there at night.

"It may have happened before, but we can't recall the two major party candidates for president both campaigning in our state on the same day in the final stretch," New Mexico political analyst Joe Monahan marveled on his Web site.

"If you are willing to fight the traffic and crowds, you could see both Obama and McCain within hours of each other."

Only once in 40 years has the Democratic nominee captured New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. But in 2004, George W. Bush barely won there, edging John Kerry by less than 1 percentage point in New Mexico, 2 points in Nevada, and 5 points in Colorado. Had Kerry won those states, he would be president.

This year, the Obama campaign targeted the region as part of its efforts to expand the electoral map. And polls now show Obama leading in New Mexico and Colorado, and leading or tied in Nevada.

"This region has been trending Democratic. But there is no question that the Obama campaign, with its organizational skills, has been accelerating the process," said Cornell Clayton, a political scientist at Washington State University.

McCain sandwiched his visit to Albuquerque on Saturday with appearances Friday in Denver, Colorado Springs and Durango, Colo., and a stop in Mesilla, N.M., later Saturday. Obama held rallies in Reno and Las Vegas, Nev., before his planned appearance in Albuquerque on Saturday night.

In McCain, the Republicans would seem to have the perfect candidate to extend their dominance in the three Mountain West states.

After all, McCain is the senior senator from Arizona, the first major party nominee from the West in a quarter century. And he has displayed the kind of independence traditionally valued by Western voters, breaking with the Republican Party on issues such as global warming and immigration reform.

McCain's selection of a Westerner as his running mate – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – was meant to solidify his standing across the region.

But the political winds have been blowing in the Democrats' favor. The Mountain West is one of the fastest-growing regions of the country, in large part because of a surge in the Hispanic population, which tends to favor Democrats.

At the same time, the national GOP's emphasis on social issues – especially its staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage – "alienated a lot of people in the West, even Republicans," Clayton said.

"It's not that the West has left the Republican Party, it's that the Republican Party has left the West," Clayton said. "The party's center was in the West under Ronald Reagan. That center has shifted to the South under President Bush."

In recent years, Democrats have been picking up Senate seats, gubernatorial seats and state legislative houses across the region.

Sensing an opportunity, the national Democratic Party decided to make the Mountain West a battleground this year long before Obama became the nominee. The party bumped Nevada to the top of the primary calendar and picked Denver to host its nominating convention.

The cratering national economy and Obama's dominance in campaign organizing and fundraising – forces that are helping Obama across the country – are proving beneficial across the Mountain West as well.

Democrats in the Mountain West states are now hoping for gains on Nov. 4 that go well beyond the top of the ticket and end the GOP's dominance in the region.

In New Mexico, "the Congressional races are all turning blue, too," Monahan said. "There is no ticket splitting in this deal. It looks like a rejection of the Republican brand. We may be looking at a secular change in the environment against that party for a while."