WALSENBURG, Colo._ Colorado, which hosts next week's Democratic National Convention, has voted Democratic for president only once since 1964. That was in 1992, when Bill Clinton won a three-way race with 40 percent of the vote.
But the state has been trending Democratic of late, electing U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar in 2004 and Gov. Bill Ritter two years later. It's one of the main swing states that the Obama campaign wants to carve out of the usually Republican Mountain West, and therefore one of the keys to the 2008 presidential election.
Republican John McCain of Arizona led Democrat Barack Obama by three points in last week's statewide poll by Public Opinion Strategies, and other recent surveys have found the race virtually tied.
Colorado voters are creating a new, unpredictable kind of American politics. Few in this fast-growing state of migrants are bound to traditional party loyalties, and concerns over issues in this election year differ widely — people here are divided over energy policy, economic strategy and Iraq.
"Our politics are complicated," said Susan Sterett, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.
About 12 percent of eligible Colorado voters are Latinos, the sixth-biggest Hispanic bloc in the country, and Quinnipiac University's Colorado polls have Obama ahead with this bloc by 2 to 1.
Latino voters warn that his big lead isn't solid, however. Lucy Aguilar, a retired teacher from Arvada, said that Obama has to overcome the longtime rivalry between the black and Hispanic communities, which could make many Latinos reluctant to back Obama. (About 4 percent of Colorado's population is black.)
"He has to reach out to our leaders, not just the officials in Denver," she said.
He also has to reach out in places such as Huerfano County in Colorado's fast growing rural southeast, where about a third of the population is Hispanic and 20 percent is over 65.
President Bush got 1,661 votes in Huerfano in 2004, while Democratic nominee John Kerry won 1,628. A look around Andy's Smokehouse in the Huerfano town of Walsenburg, population 3,900, up 27 percent during the 1990s, suggests that this year's election could be as close.
Andy's is Colorado in a nutshell: no single issue dominates the discussions, and no political traditions color people's thoughts because the state is redefining itself as it grows. About 1 million people lived here in 1940. That number doubled by 1970. Now it's 4.7 million.
In one booth were retirees Dick Chenault and Mary Copeland, local Republican officials. Chenault moved here from Texas, Copeland from Oklahoma. Lured by the open spaces and genteel lifestyle, they now head a GOP club that gets about 30 people to each meeting, all but six of them transplants from elsewhere.
In a back booth at Andy's were plumbers Joe Bonetta and Lance Harvey. Harvey's a Republican who'll probably vote for Obama this fall because, "He'll get us out of Iraq quicker."
Bonetta, a Democrat, says he'll go with Republican John McCain. "I can't trust anybody who doesn't have an American name," he said.
Waitress Dawn Lynch touts the day's special, Cornish hen and two sides for $6.95, and praises Obama. The 21-year-old college student and mother doesn't feel any connection with McCain.
Jordan Kramer, who hopes to start his own oil company, likes McCain. Obama's support for a windfall profits tax on oil companies frightens him, and "he's so detached from what I'm looking for."
Colorado is a magnet for people lured by the outdoors and a chance to start a new life in a state with low unemployment, and for retirees eager to escape the Midwest's urban ills. It's got military personnel, active and retired, settling in the traffic-choked Colorado Springs area, and its got sports enthusiasts who relish the skiing, snowboarding, hiking, fishing and bike trails. Even in August, one can walk through snow in the two-mile high Rockies an hour west of Denver.
"We get a curious mix of people," said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University. "We attract people who are willing to dig in the dirt for a living, and we attract people who just want to ski on the slopes."
If Colorado's new voters share one common political trait, it's that they're often independent thinkers.
Marianne Smithey, an antique store owner in Gardner, arrived from Oregon seven years ago. "It's a call to come to the mountains," she said. Her son is fighting in Iraq, and she's leaning toward McCain.
Erin Jerant, a Walsenburg gun storeowner, is a registered Democrat. "I think they're both idiots," she said. "McCain's too old and Obama's too controversial, and he has no experience."
The political mood is just as difficult to gauge in the state's other big swing area, the Denver suburbs. No single issue dominates political conversation there, either.
People are split over Iraq. Eileen Schoenberger, a Littleton stay-at-home mother, said, "We're in a war, whether we like it or not, and Obama has no experience."
But Chris Campbell, a Thornton bus driver, said Obama's the answer because, "I can't wait for us to get out of Iraq. Our troops are just stretched so thin."
A similar debate rages over energy and the environment.
Harriet Boonin, a retired social studies teacher in Boulder, said that her friends are "super-environmentalists" who stress that "we need to find ways to save Earth for future generations," and they like Obama's ideas about alternative fuels.
Oil explorer and McCain fan Jordan Kramer, however, sees potential in untapped resources. "Even at $60 a barrel, oil will still be profitable," he argued.
The economy also sparks debate. Statewide unemployment was 5.2 percent in July, the highest in three years. More than 144,000 people were looking for work, up from about 103,000 a year ago.
Kevin Igoe, a Littleton roofer, described himself as a "working middle-class guy" who thought Obama "respects my interests." Obama would give workers like him a tax cut while ending some tax breaks for the wealthy.
David Sierra, a Walsenburg sales clerk, has no health insurance. Obama's near-universal health care plan appeals to him. "He understands people like me," Sierra said.
Retiree Alonzo Abeyta, however, has no confidence that Obama can handle the faltering economy. "I get the feeling he doesn't know what he's talking about," Abeyta said.
Abeyta was similarly indifferent to McCain. "He wants to start offshore drilling; I don't know if that's the right thing to do," Abeyta said. "It's not much a reason to vote for McCain, but I'm just not voting for Obama."
Like Abeyta, a lot of Coloradans are undecided or unenthusiastic about their choice in November.
Julie Stone, a Louisville teacher, liked New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. A devoted environmentalist, Stone was annoyed that both Obama and McCain back some offshore oil drilling — though McCain's enthusiastic for it while Obama has said only that he'd consider it as part of a comprehensive compromise.
She bemoaned Obama's lack of experience but said, carefully, "I'm voting for the Democratic nominee, if he's the nominee."
To read about the Colorado Hispanic vote: http://pewhispanic.org/files/factsheets/vote2008/Colorado.pdf
To see the Census Bureau's latest profile of Colorado: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/08000.html
To see a demographic profile of Jefferson County, Colorado: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/08/08059.html
To see a demographic profile of Huerfano County, Colorado:
To see the latest Rocky Mountain News/CBS4 Colorado presidential poll: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/aug/15/rockycbs4-poll-shows-obama-mccain-neck-and-neck-co/