AURORA, Colo. -- 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.
An analysis this fall by Lang and others identified Arapahoe as the top swing county in the Centennial State, its neat subdivisions home to college-educated suburbanites who have tended to vote Republican in the past but are divided this year.
Coupled with Colorado's growing ranks of Hispanic voters, they have given Obama an average lead of 6 percentage points in the four public statewide surveys taken over the past week.
Californians move in
Dale Lanham, for one, dismisses the polls.
"I think that the true leaning of Colorado is still Republican," he says, noting he doesn't trust news coverage of the election. Lanham, 62, a Navy veteran and retired telecommunications technician from Littleton, brought his golden retriever, Roxie, to an appearance by Todd Palin, the husband of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Roxie sports an American flag scarf around her neck and a red-white-and-blue T-shirt across her back that reads, "We don't surrender to terrorists."
"Obama wants to legislate defeat when we've already won the war (in Iraq), and his taxing agenda is socialistic," Lanham says, warning, "A lot of businesses are going to go out of business if he's elected."
About 100 people have gathered amid displays of Western garb and outdoor gear at Bass Pro Shops in suburban Denver for a chance to hear the man billed as the "First Dude" of Alaska. Stuffed elk and deer heads are mounted on the walls and a two-story-high waterfall cascades over rocks in the center of the cavernous space.
Palin arrives wearing a black Tesoro Iron Dog jacket — he has won Alaska's grueling 2,000-mile snowmobile race four times — and surrounded by Secret Service agents.
"I would just encourage you to vote … and take all your hunting buddies and your fishing buddies to the polls," Palin says. He stands on a platform in front of the waterfall and speaks for about five minutes before signing autographs. The last month and a half of campaigning has been "pretty crazy for the Palin family," he says, but adds with a chuckle, "When Sarah decides to do something, you best just get out of the way."
Chuck Staudinger, 63, of Arvada, applauds. He has deep roots in Colorado — his great-grandfather settled here in the 1870s — and he has his own theory why the state's politics are shifting.
It's the newcomers, he says.
"A lot of Californians came in and they brought their California ideas with them," he says. In his own neighborhood, recent arrivals from the Golden State have raised a fuss about paving a dirt road he thinks is fine as it is.
"There are a lot of transplants … and that's really changing the face of Colorado," agrees Sean Feran, 34, a firefighter from Broomfield who is balancing his 3-year-old son, Owen, on his shoulders. "We used to be completely Republican, and now it seems like we're half-and-half. My neighbor on one side is voting for Obama, and the one on the other side is voting for McCain."
A Brookings Institution analysis of IRS data concluded that Colorado, one of the nation's fastest-growing states, has gained nearly as many migrants from California since 2000 as from every other state combined. Many were drawn by the state's tech boom in the 1990s. Now more than one-third of Coloradans are college graduates, fourth-highest in the country.
Those demographic trends have helped shape its political trends.
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.
Biden warns against overconfidence, telling supporters to take advantage of early voting to avoid unexpected problems on Tuesday. "I want to remind you: Polls and endorsements don't determine the outcome of elections," he thunders. "Voters determine the outcome of elections."
The next morning, the political debate is raging at Cariño Coffee.
Ed Brown, the undecided voter, says he's drawn to Obama but is also "extremely concerned about 'the trifecta' — Democrats controlling the Senate, Democrats controlling the Congress, Democrats controlling the presidency." He calls it "the Nancy Pelosi effect." (A few days later, he fills out his mail-in ballot for McCain.)
On the other hand, Daniel "Mack" McGuire, 50, a Republican, plans to vote for Obama.
"Republicans have let me down," says McGuire, who runs a website called TownShouts.com that offers small businesses local advertising. "I'm a fiscal conservative and they act like they're tax-and-spend Democrats."
He hopes Obama can "break the juvenile tactics between Republicans and Democrats" in Washington.
"It's the same stalemate we've been in for the last eight years," he says. "Obama has the potential, I hope, of getting something done."