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Political showdown in West

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Western Republican states that mostly were ignored by Democrats until Sen. Barack Obama "showed up" are turning into political battlegrounds in the 2008 election.

Republicans, with few exceptions in recent decades, have become accustomed to sweeping the Plains and Mountain States from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande - President Bush carried all of them in 2004 and all but one in 2000.

However, the Illinois Democrat is aggressively challenging Sen. John McCain in at least six of them, including Republican strongholds New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Montana and North and South Dakota, where polls show the race between the two rivals is close or in a dead heat.

The Obama campaign's Western strategy is twofold: First and foremost, these states have been trending Democratic in the past decade and are ripe for the taking. Second, the closeness of the presidential race demands picking up additional electoral votes in Republican territory to offset potential losses in major tossup states like Florida and Ohio.

"You have a lot of ways to 270," the number of electoral votes needed to win the election, Obama campaign manager David Plouff told reporters at a recent briefing. "Our goal is not to be reliant on one state on Nov. 4.

"We will compete aggressively in the West and the Southwest, especially in the states Bush won in 2004. We are building robust organizations across the regions, even in traditional GOP strongholds," said Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro.

Taking a page out of Woody Allen's philosophy that "80 percent of success is showing up," the Obama campaign has made a strategic decision to mount serious campaigns in places such as North Dakota and Montana that are among the reddest of the red states. Though the two states have just six electoral votes between them, he has opened campaign offices in both states, including six in Montana.

"If I didn't show up, I wouldn't get many votes around here. If I did show up, I might get something going," Mr. Obama told a fundraising crowd in Colorado Springs, where he held a four-point edge over Mr. McCain last week.

Mr. McCain isn't taking the region for granted and has a team of surrogates campaigning for him there, including his former rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is popular in the region and won Republican primaries in Montana, Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.

"Nevada and the West will make the difference as to whether I'm the next president or not," Mr. McCain told voters at the opening of his Nevada campaign headquarters earlier this month.

Here's a rundown on where the races stand in these battleground states:

cColorado: A Public Policy Polling survey shows Mr. McCain trailing by four points, 43 percent to 47 percent, with 10 percent undecided and a three-point margin of error.

The Republican Party has carried the state in the past three presidential elections. Mr. Bush won it in 2004 by nearly 100,000 votes. Still, both Republican and Democratic polls show the race remains tight, and veteran election tracker Charlie Cook puts it in the "tossup" column.

cNorth Dakota: The last Democrat to carry this rock-ribbed Republican state was President Johnson in 1964, and Democrats since then all but ignored it until Mr. Obama moved a full-time campaign organization into the state. Mr. Bush carried the state by 27 points in both his elections. Yet its senators and congressman-at-large are Democrats, and the Obama camp is investing heavily in the state and has begun airing TV ads there.

cA Rasmussen poll conducted July 8 showed the race in a dead heat with 43 percent each, 7 percent supporting a third-party candidate and 7 percent undecided.

"The top issues here are energy prices and the economy. If Barack Obama localizes the election, his chances are excellent in North Dakota," said Democratic state Chairman David Strauss.

"The Republicans have a slight edge here, according to the polls, but Obama is getting about 60 percent of the independents," Mr. Strauss said. Even so, based on its past performance, Mr. Cook puts the state in the "likely Republican" column.

cSouth Dakota: It has voted Democratic for president just four times since gaining statehood in 1889, the last time for Mr. Johnson in 1964. Mr. Bush easily carried the state in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote. A Rasmussen poll on July 9 showed Mr. Obama trailing his rival by 40 percent to 44 percent, with a 4 1/2 percent margin of error.

Notably, the Rasmussen survey showed Mr. McCain was viewed much more favorably than Mr. Obama by 62 percent to 54 percent. Mr. Cook still sees the state going "likely Republican."

cMontana: Democrats hold the governorship, both Senate seats and the state Senate, but Bill Clinton in 1992 was the last Democrat to carry the state.

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama is making a big push in the state, celebrating the 4th of July there and sending in a phalanx of paid campaign staffers. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Mr. Obama leading 48 percent to 43 percent. Mr. Bush carried the state by 59 percent in 2004.

Though Montana, with just three electoral votes, hasn't exactly been friendly to Democratic presidential candidates, Mr. Obama sees things differently there. "If you look at the trends in many of these states, there are more and more independents who aren't tied to a political party, and I want to make sure that we are reaching out to them," he said in a briefing earlier this month.

cNew Mexico: Little or no polling has been done in the state lately, but New Mexico has become a swing state in presidential politics. It went Republican in the 1980s then Democratic in the 1990s. Al Gore won it in 2000, but Mr. Bush narrowly reclaimed it by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2004.

Still, the state continues trending Democratic, with the Democratic Party holding the governorship and the state legislature and splitting the House and Senate delegations. The race is close, according to state political officials.

A SurveyUSA poll in early June said Mr. Obama led by 49 percent to 46 percent. A Rasmussen poll on June 19 showed Mr. Obama leading 47 percent to 39 percent, with a big lead among the state's large Hispanic population, 63 percent to 34 percent.

The state's Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 49.4 percent to 33 percent, with third parties and independents making up the rest.

"McCain is polling very well in our state. We've got a lot of Democrats who tend to be more centrist, more moderate, and any Republican in New Mexico has to have Democratic support," said Allen E. Weh, the state Republican chairman.

"He has a great relationship with Hispanics. I was with him Tuesday morning in Albuquerque at a diner that is a Hispanic hangout, and he was treated like a rock star," Mr. Weh said.

Mr. Cook's forecast: "Leans Democrat."

cNevada: A statistical dead heat, with Mr. Obama leading his rival by a mere three points, 45 percent to 42 percent, according to the latest Rasmussen poll.

The state voted heavily Republican in the 1980s, giving Ronald Reagan more than 60 percent of its vote, and backed George H.W. Bush in 1988. It turned Democratic in the 1990s, voting twice for Bill Clinton, then swung behind George W. Bush, who won the state twice.

However, Democrats in the state, who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the victor in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, said last week that their party is still not fully united behind Mr. Obama.

"It's a work in progress. Everybody had their heart set on their candidates, and there's a large cluster of Hillary Clinton supporters," said Adriana Martinez, Nevada's former Democratic state chairman.

"I would say they have not fully united behind him, women or Hispanics. They were so passionate about Hillary, and to see our candidate lose... but we're working to regroup and unite everybody," Ms. Martinez said.

The two candidates "are pretty much in a dead heat," she said. Mr. Cook's take: "a tossup."